Step inside the PR agency of 2038

Bots and technologists galore. A diverse workforce. And the death of the current holding company model. These are just a few predictions from industry leaders of what could be commonplace in two decades.

Step out of the elevator and through the agency’s doors. There are fewer worker bees; their jobs have been replaced by bots. At least half of the employees are technologists. A majority of the leadership roles are filled by women, and the staff is diverse, with a large number of black, Hispanic-, and Asian-American employees. It is independently owned, but being wooed by specialized technology vendors looking to take an ownership stake.

The firm is thriving with brand-name clients that used to turn to big agencies from holding companies. With the automation of executional and transactional PR, clients are paying a premium to access this shop's considerable intellectual capital.

Welcome to the agency of the future -- 2038, to be exact -- based on the predictions of in-house and agency leaders.

Aking communications executives to look 20 years ahead may seem impossible, but the future has been on their minds, given the pace of recent change in their businesses and in the media. (It’s also very much on our minds at PRWeek as we celebrate our 20th anniversary in the U.S.)

"We’ve seen more change over the past four years in retail than in our 40-year history as a company," says Stephen Holmes, senior director of corporate communications and interim chief communications officer at Home Depot.

Scott Allison, chairman and CEO of Allison+Partners, echoes that sentiment, and expects the pace of change to accelerate. "We had a 20-year window when the rate of change was pretty small, but from 1998 to 2018, the speed of change has been incredible," he says. "It is only going to quicken in the next 20 years and be more radical."  

The rise of the bots
There is no shortage of experts speculating about the effects of artificial intelligence and how it will revolutionize the way people work. In 20 years, robots could be handling communications functions like research, metrics, and content creation.

Holmes points out that AI is already being programmed to create artwork. Home Depot is using it to respond to like-posts on its social media channels. Holmes can see it being employed one day to draft media announcements and pitches, but that doesn’t mean bots will replace agency professionals, at least not in terms of their brain power. After all, the most adaptable and intelligent computer -- so far -- is the human brain.

"People will figure out how agencies can perform better and better with whatever tools are at the fingertips. It is just the magic of the human race," says Holmes. "The agency of the future will help us understand comms technology, where that is leading us, and how we can put that to work. That is something we already look to outside from our agencies."

He also doesn’t expect chatbots to replace the emotional intelligence needed in deeper interactions between PR practitioners and reporters. "Media relations people often have to remind themselves not to act like robots and really answer the reporter’s questions," Holmes notes, adding that professional networks and relationships will still matter, no matter what the media environment looks like.

Allison forecasts that in the next two decades "it will be this collision of technology, efficiency, and speed. That will see a real weeding out of agencies, because there is a level of mediocrity out there right now." He also predicts that successful PR agencies will emerge as leaders in micro-targeting.

"There are also media relations shops without the ability to invest in tools and apps," he adds. "It will be a hard road for them."

In other words, firms that don’t automate and robotize some functions will become obsolete. However, Allison concurs that there will still be room for the human brain.

While machine learning will supplement some PR people and functions, "you can’t commoditize smart," he contends. "Brands are still going to need smart people in issues management and crisis situations, and really detailed problem-solvers -- and in the future, clients will pay a premium for it."

Bryan Specht, president at Olson and Olson Engage, agrees that an agency’s value will not be in fulfilment and physical delivery.

"Their true value will be back where it started in crafting the creative concept that drives the message, content, and experience delivered via this fully automated infrastructure," he explains. "It will be a fundamental return to creative’s heyday when the new delivery technology of TV required a strong creative idea. The truth is this day will likely come long before 2038 as the fixation on and approach to data rationalizes over the next few years and creative returns as the core – almost exclusive – value proposition of agencies."

The demise of the old agency model
Some experts see a future without the big holding company as we know it. Of course, the Omicoms and WPPs of the world are hearing these predictions, as well, and are adjusting their models.

"We’re already seeing that the holding company model is broken. Holding companies have been trying to create an integrated approach for clients, but they are not financially incentivized or structured to offer it," says Dave Samson, GM of public affairs at Chevron. "We’ll be in a world where we don’t have big holding companies, at least the way they are organized...Agencies of the future will be configured for machine learning, micro-casting for one-to-one comms, and engaging with ecosystems of shared interests, beliefs, and experiences."

Those changes will result in a new breed of agency by 2038, he predicts.

"You’re going to see new, emerging firms and more specialization," he bets, as well as the demise of agencies built to support an analog and broadcast world and accustomed to using small data and demographics to target earned media programs.

PR agencies are also hiring different kinds of talent than they did five years ago. Given what he characterizes as the oncoming "merger between mankind and machine," Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky says it won’t be long before "agencies will hire as many technologists as they do creatives. The tools that seem futuristic to us now will be ubiquitous."

"Our role as guardians of reputation and as advisers of how companies contribute to society at large, as creative storytellers, and our expertise in facilitating meaningful connections for brands, companies, and other organizations will remain key skill sets," he notes. "It’s how connections are made – and how the work is measured – that will change."

Experts also predict that agencies will look differently, with more diverse staffs and and female leadership. Kim Hunter, founder and chairman of the Lagrant Foundation, anticipates a more diverse set of agency leaders 20 years from now.

"Given that 75% to 80% of the agency workforce in PR is women right now, you are going to be see more females running big agencies. It is also my hope we will see more ethnic leaders. I say 'hope' because they need to be in the pipeline, and I don’t know if they are and will be," he says. "But will the same players you see today in the market be there tomorrow? I doubt it. There will not be enough business for all of us."

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