Why more agencies than ever are rolling out their own comms tech tools

Firms believe they know their clients better than they know themselves, and they’re engineering customized tools just for their needs.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

More agencies are looking within for the tools they need to provide a range of services to their clients, from predicting media interest and consumer behavior to uncovering market white space and streamlining social customer service operations. But why? And why now?

The answer, according to some agency executives, is that many off-the-shelf solutions may no longer cut it for clients’ very specific needs. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only sped up this process.

“The PR industry is woefully behind when it comes to real, performance-based technology solutions,” says Aaron Kwittken, founder and CEO of PRophet and chairman of KWT Global. “It’s a race to the bottom of overpriced online media databases, imprecise monitoring tools and stylized measurement dashboards. Brands and agencies deserve better.”

Agency experts who spoke with PRWeek Dashboard agree that firms and their clients are demanding more from platforms. Michael Brito, EVP of technology at Zeno Group, says that while many existing tools are useful for extracting data points, “most of them only provide limited insights and are very expensive to deploy for multiple clients.”

Chris Perry, chief innovation officer at Weber Shandwick agrees, saying, “Building these bespoke solutions is more effective for solving clients’ unique challenges than out-of-box platforms.”

It’s common for experts to say they want to better meet the needs of clients with bespoke products built by firms that can help companies solve specific problems. Darren Bosik, senior director at APCO Insight, argues that building tools in-house enables an agency to solve for challenges that it and its clients are facing. These include crisis response, real-time data analytics and “developing more robust insights from a multitude of data sources.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic could be playing a role in the development and adoption of these built-in-house services, as well. According to Jim O’Leary, Edelman’s global corporate practice chair, who recently launched the firm’s own proprietary service, CommsTech Solutions, the pandemic is driving an accelerated adoption of digital communications and data services. 

Clients don’t just rely on their agency of choice to help them increase sales; they also want help saving money, increasing employee productivity and protecting against mis- and disinformation. 

“And, ultimately, they rely on agencies to use data to quantify the commercial and reputational benefit of communications,” O’Leary adds.

Advances in and increased accessibility to a range of technology also makes it easier to develop tools in-house. Both clients and firms have access to low-code and no code frameworks and affordable AI platforms, such as Open AI/GPT, GCP and Watson that make it easier to build customized platforms, says Perry.

“Plus, when agencies start to see a pattern of business problems across their clients, it makes all the more sense to build a repeatable solution than engaging in one-offs that aren’t a perfect fit for the client’s needs,” he adds.

However the biggest reason that firms are developing platforms themselves is that they believe they know their clients best and are well-positioned to create the tools they need.

“While out-of-box platforms can get you part of the way fairly quickly, we’ve found that understanding a client’s problem and building a specific solution is often a better investment with sustained results,” says Perry. “We have a unique vantage into our client’s business that allows us to identify ways to improve how they communicate, engage their communities or customers and listen for trends or other opportunities.”

Brito also highlights competition and the difficulty of earning an audience’s attention. “Because we know our clients and their business better than enterprise software, we can build scalable platforms that are 100% relevant to what our clients need and oftentimes expect,” he contends.

In other words, building may simply be more appealing than buying. Bosik notes that there are numerous SaaS vendors for various needs, but APCO “believes that building from within can bring a more customized solution tailored to client needs.” 

But customization is more than just one-size-fits-all platforms built in-house. At APCO, for example, staffers take a hybrid approach. 

“We develop customized, standalone data-driven solutions for clients but also create products that will be standard deliverables,” Bosik says. 

Brito adds that Zeno customizes its products similarly. “For some clients, we include our full suite of analytics as a part of our core retainer,” he says. “In other cases, we provide additional studies and analytics projects based on needs.”

Leaders of companies behind comms tech platforms are shrugging off, or even welcoming, the space getting more crowded with technologies from firms, and some are even partnering with the agencies. 

"It's a welcome trend. Technology's overhauling the news world and by extension the PR business, yet there's been a massive underinvestment in PR tech,” says Muck Rack cofounder and CEO Greg Galant. “Just about every major PR firm is on the Muck Rack platform, and we've been in discussions with many of them about how we can integrate and support the tech they're building."

NewsWhip cofounder and CEO Paul Quigley says his company works with many large agencies and holding companies that are building tools, dashboards and data services.

“I expect to see the most success where agencies leverage an existing strength: an area of special competence, owned data or data gathered from across a holding company to be linked with third-party data,” he says. “Through our API, we are supporting various initiatives on those fronts and look forward to see what’s coming.”

It’s not just products and tools created by agencies that are evolving rapidly, experts also point to a need for improved data skills across their employee base. For one, Bosik calls for more data scientists who can understand and analyze the outputs of the tools. 

“Agencies have too often relied on the software to do the job alone,” he says. “They need a team of experts who can build the processes and products around data and evolve their intelligence for client initiatives.”

Pointing to the fact that the communications profession was born during the heyday of the newspaper, O’Leary adds that “many comms departments have yet to fully evolve, much less prepare, for the world of artificial intelligence and machine learning that we have entered.”

“Today, too few companies have data scientists, content marketing strategists, behavioral scientists or stakeholder intelligence advisers on their teams,” he contends. “These are some of the new essential roles of a modern communications function. Without those people built into the team, many communications departments won’t be optimized for the present and the future.”

Kwittken agrees, noting that while the technology, such as natural language processing and machine learning has caught up with what clients and their agency partners want to be able to do, the people using these tools may not have. 

“Perhaps more agencies will attempt to build tools, but the bigger threat is big tech companies attempting to make PR professionals obsolete someday,” he says.

AI tools are an opportunity for PR pros, but they could also threaten the existence of these very jobs. Kwittken argues that this is due in part to the PR industry evolving in an attempt to keep up with marketing technology. Perry sees it differently. 

“Machine learning, [natural language processing and natural language generation are powerful tools for disruption, but human insight is key to making an impact for a client’s business,” he says. “Agencies must have a close understanding how clients work and where their workflow can be improved.”

This story was updated on October 14 with additional information. 

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