Should PR agencies hire experience or raw talent?

The race is on for agencies to build their digital assets.  Get it right and PR firms will grow faster than they have in decades.  Get it wrong and they’ll have a struggle on their hands.  So as agency heads look at their talent base and their potential new hires, they have a tough question to answer.  Do they hire experienced marketing professionals who have some digital skills or the typically younger, more digitally literate who have only limited experience?  Sadly for the more experienced group, the answer appears to be that agencies are trending towards hiring younger digerati, rather than grey hairs.  This in turn is reshaping agency structures, product offerings, and pricing.  To twist an old saying, we are who we hire.  With agencies moving from a classic pyramid model towards something that looks more like a coat hanger, the opportunities for today’s experienced professionals are becoming fewer by the day.  Is this fair?  Probably not but this drive to hire younger, cheaper talent is in part the result of another force, not just digital.  Client procurement departments have acted like sand paper on PR budgets for years and have increasingly made it more desirable to hire doers over strategists.

Most agencies are racing to build a ‘new’agency on top of their existing one.  While they do need some experience to prevent the thing from collapsing in heap, what they need most is staff that can get on and ‘do’ at a price point that makes the investments the agencies are making viable.  This effectively forces agencies to hire lower cost staff.  These of course tend to be kids from college who have no real experience but can tell you anything you want to know about Facebook and Twitter.  For this generation, SEO is a form of grammer and html was a choice alongside Spanish and French at school.  Given a brand is now defined by the size and strength of its social network, it’s hardly surprising that many agencies will value these skills over someone who has known the editors at a business publication for a decade.

So is it all doom and gloom for us oldies?  Far from it.  We can start and build these new agencies, they do after all need some adult supervision.  We can also explore the boundaries of owned, earned and paid media.  These are the places where real value lies and where experience can really come to the fore.  But we cannot assume that because we have decades of experience that our futures are secure.  We have to bring something of value to the transition to digital.  Identifying what this is is crucial and could yet save the careers of many.  We are in an era of marketing where the value of experience is trending downward.  In years to come that will of course change as digital becomes the norm but for now the digital natives are set to become the new leaders.  That may not be what people want to hear but our industry is, like many, Darwinian.  In our case the fittest are the digerati.

3 Comments on “Should PR agencies hire experience or raw talent?”

  1. lonn says:

    It’s always a balance (experience and young talent), but we find hiring the smartest entry-level people we can find the best path for our social media practice. Time to money for a new hire is much shorter in social media (where much of the practice is new, undefined, and very much driven by quick thinking) we find than with traditional PR. It’s exciting to work with them and with brands who are aggressive in these emerging channels

    • timdyson says:

      you were one of the first spot the opportunity to retool your firm with a completely new kid of PRO and it’s clearly worked. Indeed Page One is a good case study for this issue.

  2. David Bailey says:

    It’s about raw talent first. But the raw talents we–agencies and clients alike–should seek are fundamental communication skills, business acumen and broad knowledge across industries and academic fields. If you have that, SEO can be learned as easily as “old world” PR tactics (it’s not string theory, after all….)

    If you get all of that in a youngster, great. But beware the puppies who know SEO, but don’t know the difference between “complement” and “compliment” and who can’t comprehend a financial report. (Likewise, beware the veteran who poo-poos digital and can’t take 30 minutes to learn to write smart blogs or tweets or track an online conversation.)

    Young and old alike will succeed if they can help a company communicate effectively with a target audience, using whatever channel or tools are best for the job.

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