-Ted Birkhahn, cofounder and president, Hot Paper Lantern
-Rachel Catanach, SVP, GM of New York, FleishmanHillard
-Tom Coyne, CEO, Coyne PR
-Mary Elizabeth Germaine, partner and MD of global analytics, Ketchum
-Liz Kaplow, CEO, Kaplow
-Ray Kerins, CEO, The Next Solutions Group
-Binna Kim, group CEO, Vested
-Grace Leong, CEO, Hunter
-Daniel Lotzof, chief revenue officer, Notified
-Tracy Naden, president, Lippe Taylor
-Jen Risi, founder and CEO, The Sway Effect
-Cortney Stapleton, CEO, The Bliss Group
-David Wippich, CTO, CPO, CIO, Notified
Client relationships are the lifeblood of any agency. Technology – and the most effective and creative applications of it – are foundational factors in ensuring those partnerships are strong and grow stronger.
As both sides of that equation are well aware, Artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive technology are revolutionizing the discipline, much as they are the entire world. That reality facilitates heightened expectations from clients of their agency partners.
During this recent PRWeek roundtable, 11 agency leaders joined Notified and PRWeek for a candid discussion about those all-important and evolving conversations being had about technology.
Relying on their partners
It’s no surprise that clients expect agencies to use technology to improve efficiency and achieve optimal results. What might be surprising, though, is just how much clients rely on agencies on this front.
Many clients are turning to agencies “to do a lot of the tech discovery on their behalf,” notes Ketchum’s Mary Elizabeth Germaine.
In fact, the assembled group held that, overall, clients are seeking help defining the role of technology for their organizations.
“They want a story that shows that they're going to be relevant for the future,” explains FleishmanHillard’s Rachel Catanach. “It is very much about reputational impact and keeping them as safe as possible while they discover what it's actually going to mean for the organizational structure.”
Kaplow’s Liz Kaplow is not surprised that clients look to their agency partners for this kind of guidance. She has found that “technology has helped us build credibility in a tremendous way as an agency.”
From creating a database of journalists to gathering insights and measuring performance, “technology is the support – like if we're Gladys Knight, it's our Pips,” adds Kaplow. “It's helping us be business partners.”
(clockwise from top left): Kerins, Risi, Coyne, Stapleton and Kaplow
The approach to AI
Whenever a major new technology comes onto the scene – think cars, television, social media, etc. – initial trepidation is common. When it comes to generative AI, though, such sentiments have taken on a whole new level.The Next Solutions Group’s Ray Kerins has seen it before.
As with any new innovation, “there are detractors at every single step,” he points out. “[With AI], you have to go right into it because it's a thousand times more powerful than anything else we've seen previously.”
An overriding concern in the industry when it comes to generative AI is where do comms pros fit in. The assembled leaders had many answers to that fear.
The key is to think about AI as a tool that requires human direction, suggests Coyne PR’s Tom Coyne. “AI gets you in field goal range, but it will not get you across the goal line.”Of course, there remain a lot of unknowns.
Hunter’s Grace Leong compared AI to a “car that we don't know how to drive yet. We don't know what the controls mean and how to pull them to make the car go from zero to 60.”
While clients expect agencies to understand how to operate AI, “there's still that struggle with how do you get clients to recognize the value and pay for it,” she shares.
As the industry becomes more efficient with it, “the next big dilemma will be how does that change the economic model of the agency-client relationship,” points out Hot Paper Lantern’s Ted Birkhahn.
“[Generative AI] is blowing people's minds as to how you can engage something that's not human and still feels human,” says Vested’s Binna Kim. Yet, it also has the capabilities to help PR pros “better understand the data and the story it is telling.”
(clockwise from top left): Leong, Kim, Birkhahn and Lotzof
A new role for leaders
An organization is only as strong as its workforce. The assembled agency leaders understand that. In turn, they recognize their responsibility to assuage the concerns of their most important asset: their staff.
Communicators are essential in crafting a narrative. AI won’t change that. In fact, it can greatly help with it.
“AI will help us get to insights faster based on the data available,” offers Germaine. “It will give us more precise data, deeper data, but you will still need to combine that human element for that interpretation.”
Having both sets of skills to do that “is changing the way that you hire and build your data and analytics team,” adds Lippe Taylor’s Tracy Naden, who specifies the recent addition of data scientists to her firm’s workforce.
As AI impacts hiring, companies will need to reassure employees about “how it is going to enhance what we do, that human element that only we can do when we build relationships through nuance,” adds Kaplan.
Meanwhile, at Coyne PR, the emphasis is on fun, not fear, and how AI can help the agency test ideas, Coyne explains.
According to a senior talent manager in finance with whom Birkhahn recently spoke, it is clear companies “need people who are curious or willing to embrace change and adapt.” In PR, he adds, it’s critical that “strategic comms professionals better understand data and data scientists better understand PR.”
Ensuring ultimate value
Agencies represent clients that are at varying stages of tech savviness, notes The Sway Effect’s Jen Risi, so the tenor of the conversations with them run the gamut.
Leong highlights how some clients are solely focused on how the tools can benefit them, while agencies tend to focus on outputs. She believes that measurement can be more nuanced and that firms “need to show outcomes that [clients] understand.”
Bundling services can shift the conversation to the value of the actual services clients are getting from their agency partners. For example, a firm could tell a client that “30% of their retainer isn't going toward junior folks crunching things that technology could easily do at a fraction of the cost,” says Kim. Instead, you can underscore how technology helps them “get more senior time and attention.”
However, it’s critical that agencies invest in technology early in order to take full advantage. “If you didn't have the tools active before [a major event, such as an IPO], you're actually missing the largest data of measurements you're going to have,” explains Notified’s Dan Lotzof.
For Geramine, measurement has graduated from a diagnostic tool to “a prescriptive one that helps us showcase how we're adding value to the business overall. And then [it’s also] prescriptive in what we are going to do to make it better, more effective and more efficient over time.”
Clients want a clear picture of what they need to do to “get ahead both from a qualitative and a quantitative standpoint,” concludes Birkhahn.
(clockwise from top left): Naden, Germaine, Catanach and Wippich
A look ahead
For as much as technology brings to the table for communicators and the brands they represent, the surface has barely been scratched.
For example, AI has the capability of offering significant insight into risk and crisis management and helping organizations “understand the context of the moment,” Catanach observes. “It also helps the CCO, particularly those who have multi-stakeholder relationships, navigate those in a much more strategic way.”
Staying on the topic of crisis, Birkhahn believes that predictive technology could allow PR pros to give clients “that trusted level-headed opinion on what you're going to do, what you should do, don't overreact or underreact, how to strike the right chord here.”
The key, he adds, is to “use data to quickly and effectively generate insights that help agencies win new business, maintain good client relationships and grow existing business.”
But even here, though, The Bliss Group’s Cortney Stapleton underscores the huge role humans will always play in crisis management.
Clients often look to their communicators for “emotional consultation. A ‘we’ve-seen-this-before approach.’ ”
While PR pros will always bring myriad unique abilities to the organizations they counsel, the assembled leaders had more to share in terms of how technology can supercharge efforts.It will allow agencies “to not only generate ideas, but test those ideas in a real-time, cost-effective way – and in different cultural contexts,” notes Catanach.
This will become increasingly important as clients demand agencies “show the data that proves why this idea is the right one,” continues Risi. To that end, agencies will benefit from being able “to take an idea and feed it into predictive [tools] to see what kind of coverage it would have gotten,” says Coyne.
ChatGPT is the tool of the moment – and its potential to help PR pros is massive – but caution is needed, suggests Notified’s David Wippich.
“Everything you put in ChatGPT becomes public domain,” he explains. Using a music analogy, ChatGPT (or other AI tools) might make it easier to write a song, but it doesn’t mean the song is good. Technology might make it easier to write software, but that doesn't mean it solves the problem.
So, the key in this ever-evolving landscape is “to sell the solution, not the tool,” Germaine concludes.