A Future Ready Agency


AUTHORS NOTE:  I wrote this in the midst of a particularly turbulent time in the agency world.  Now two years later...I can't help think it is likely just as relevant.  I have removed any proprietary or confidential information.   

As agencies of all ilk work at a break-neck speed to “pivot toward the future” it is reasonable to ask, just what does a “future ready" agency look like anyway?  I don't pretend to have the answer -- but I do have some opinions about what the future looks like for PR agencies and about what a future-ready staff must look like.

I know two things for sure --  there is no one “right” answer and that minute I pushed "send"  something was likely changing, but I am happy to share my top six thoughts about what I think the future might look like.  

1. We should stop worrying about what we are called.  I can’t even count how many times I have been asked a variation of “are we a PR Agency trying to become an Ad Agency?  A Digital Agency?  A Content Agency?" My answer has always been:  it doesn’t matter what we are called.  What matters is what we do and how our clients value what we bring to them. Brad Jakeman, president of the global beverage group at PepsiCo predicts the term agency will go away altogether and be replaced by the term partner.  I like the sound of that because to me partnership means understanding what a client needs and then finding a way to deliver it to them.

2. The old axiom of Better, Faster, Cheaper – Pick Two no longer works. We have to be all of those things.  We will all be expected to create great work. The marketplace will demand we do it faster.  And our clients need us to do it more cost-efficiently.  This is the new normal, so we should not expect things to “slow down” anytime soon.  Or ever. 

3. Content is King. And great content can come from anywhere. This, my PR friends is exactly what my advertising friends have been concerned about for the last decade. This has been a game-changer in our industry more than any other.  Advertising used to unequivocally own content.  Now it is truly a world of "may the best content win."  That is fantastic for consumers -- as we will have better content as a result, but it has broadened the competition from just advertising and PR agencies to talent agencies like CAA.  And dozens of channels like Amazon, Google, Facebook are now solidly in the content game. And guess what, so is that guy in the coffee shop with his laptop and IPhone. So all of us need to continue upping our game and producing better and more relevant stuff.

4. Financial pressures aren’t going away.  Even as the economy continues to slowly improve, the financial discipline imposed on companies during our most recent recession introduced another “new normal.”  That new normal means procurement departments and third-party purchasing companies; consultants like Deloitte, Accenture, and IBM are all in the mix now.  And, they are in the C-Suites of our clients advising them on efficiency (in other words, cost cutting).  We will be expected to talk about our results in the same business terms they are using – sales, shareholder equity, market share, growth, etc.  And, we will continue to be asked to cut costs (see point #2.)

5. Media Coverage Matters. One of PR's core strengths – good old-fashioned media relations (earned media, buzz -- whatever you want to call it) – is still a major need for clients. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, PR-native firms are still the best at delivering those results.  Sure – it is has changed.  It is now almost always multi-channel and the channels have multiplied in truly astronomical ways.  Our media strategies now often include a paid amplification component and the omnipresent "influencer" has a lot of just that -- influence.  Our advertising and creative agency brethren are now talking about it and sometimes even doing it (though they call it creating “buzz” or amplification).  But, whatever it is called, or however it is positioned to clients – anything a marketer spends money on that does not generate that additional media coverage is not going to be judged as a success.  And by the way, keeping clients out of the news or minimizing any potential damage is still very important to brands everywhere.

6. Data and Analytics. Data and Analytics. Data and Analytics. We will continue to have to justify everything we are doing in a data-driven way. Simply reaching stakeholders is not longer enough.  Now we must engage with them and we have to show our clients when we engaged and why, who we targeted and where we found them, and above all, how we did this cost-efficiently.  If you have any clients who still want impression numbers from you, my prediction is that that particular form of measurement (or the people asking for it) won’t be around for long.  Smart marketers want much deeper and more specific information from us. People who understand data across multiple channels are in the best position to be good stewards of our clients’ budgets.   

So ...what does this all mean for talent? 

Should you be scared or excited?   

Honestly I think we should be mostly excited with a healthy dose of fear to keep us on our toes.  

Are you change-ready?

  • Are you taking the right steps to keep learning?
  • Are you bringing new ideas to your leaders?  To your teams?
  • Are you challenging the status quo when you think it is the right thing to do?
  • And if someone is challenging your status quo, are you open-minded and listening closely?
  • Are you willing to challenge your clients to sometimes think differently about something even when they might not want to hear it?
  • Are you staying current by reading about our business?  About our client’s business?
  • What new skill have you tried to learn or get better at in the last year?

I challenge you to think about these questions.  To answer them honestly for yourself.  And then to think about the ways you can help change your agency -- and your clients -- to help them be ready for the future.  Do your work based on optimism over what is possible, not out of fear about what might happen.  Relish the change.  And enjoy being part of shaping the future.