COMMENT PLATFORM: External agencies must not sacrifice quality for size. Agencies must adapt to keep up with the growing sophistication of in-house teams, says John Eisenhammer

What are the most common complaints about external PR advisers?

What are the most common complaints about external PR advisers?

First, that after a short honeymoon, work is often handed to

inexperienced juniors. Second, that standards of service and delivery

are patchy - agencies over-promise and under-deliver.

The two, of course, are often linked. How many times has one heard

clients complain that, having been won over by the senior people at the

presentation, most of the work and responsibility for the relationship

is quickly handed to the person in the agency who happens to have spare

capacity at that moment? It is not surprising that the quality of work

becomes uneven.

This is not unique to PR. Advisers and consultants are, after all, there

to be complained about, be they corporate lawyers or merchant


But there is a difference with PR. It is less established than the old

professions, and is thus having to work that much harder to adapt to the

needs of clients who are themselves becoming more demanding and more


A major factor driving this change is the steady rise in the calibre and

status of in-house communications directors. This is partly

generational, with top executives increasingly aware that good

communications are as central to the success of their business,

organisation or campaign as, for example, a good IT system.

As a result, more senior, experienced people are being made responsible

for communications, often with properly resourced departments. Many of

these communications directors are quite properly part of the executive

management committee, and it is only a matter of time before it becomes

a board-level responsibility.

For external communications advisers, this means not just raising their

game, but changing their entire approach. The days when lobbyists could

get away with being glorified escort agencies, or PR firms could simply

offer arms and legs support are passing. The mundane monitoring that has

been the bread and butter of lobbying is now available on the web and

big communications departments need less help with the routine

implementation and process-driven work that has been the stock-in-trade

of many agencies.

Rather, what chairmen, chief executives and their communications

directors increasingly want, and expect, is intelligent, independent

advice and support from senior, experienced practitioners.

How to satisfy that demand is one of the key challenges facing

communications firms. Many of them, to my mind, have chosen a route

which will make it more difficult to deliver sustained quality of

advice, as they go for size and, in many cases, build a one-stop shop

covering lobbying, financial, corporate and consumer PR.

But in the multi-disciplinary communications company, experience

suggests that quality of people is bound to be patchy. The senior

people, those the client actually respects and wants, have to spend a

lot of time managing the overall business and, frequently, covering up

for the shortcomings of colleagues. The result? Service suffers,

attention to detail flags, clarity of thinking is reduced - and the

client loses out.

As the marketing services behemoths swallow up more and more agencies,

and the medium-sized strain to become big, the challenge of how to raise

the calibre of advisers and the quality of advice can too often be an

afterthought. Of course, size brings advantages - broader reach and

deeper resources. But if it is a sustained senior-level relationship and

consistent quality of thinking a client wants, the answer is more likely

to be found in the deliberately small, advice-focused consultancy.

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