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.
Across America it’s back to school time. Families are getting used to packing lunches, the joys of nightly homework and arranging after school activities. It’s also a time when work calendars fill up as people return from vacations, supposedly refreshed. Of course in America they don’t take the long vacations that are common in countries such as France and Sweden. Instead they stretch to ten days, or two weeks if they are feeling particularly brave. Either way, Americans are now ready to do battle with the economy while their kids do battle with mathematics and English. In the world of communications and marketing in general, the summer is a quiet period where only a real crisis will garner much attention. The Fall on the other hand is a period where news floods out as businesses launch products and make acquisitions. The flood of news does of course make it harder to get people’s attention. You are, after all, competing with others for your fifteen seconds of fame (the Internet equivalent of Warhol’s prediction). So does this make sense? I appreciate it is difficult to get things done over the summer when so many people are away and the argument goes that: what’s the point of announcing things when nobody is around to read about it? I’d argue that in the age of social and online media, the summer is no longer a dead time for getting attention. It is merely a dead time for people seeking it. While I was away I checked on the news, industry and otherwise, everyday on my iPhone and I’m not that unusual. With today’s technology people hear about the news whether they are at work on a south pacific island. So it makes me wonder whether companies should rethink summer media madness and use the fact that attention is easier to get to their advantage. Perhaps, therefore, it’s time for us communications folk to go back to school…
PR agencies often get caught up in the politics of their clients. It could be departments that are at war; marketing heads that refuse to let anyone but them talk to the CEO; PR plans that are designed to keep CEOs happy rather than do what the client’s business objectives need. Agency staff often scratch their heads when such things happen but in the end they tend to go with the flow for fear of losing the business. This isn’t consultancy though. Instead this is being an a … well you know the word.
So how can agencies be real consultants in a world where so many clients behave irrationally? It’s not easy and it isn’t simply a case of being principled. If you fired every client because they refused to act as they should, you’d have no clients. Indeed the politics that cause clients to behave strangely are more deep rooted than just the PR department, they are often company-wide issues. In most cases if the CEO really knew what was going on he, or she, would scream the house down. But of course in some cases the CEO is the cause of the politics. CEOs that run their businesses by fear, often create dysfunctional but often quite successful businesses. And this is where as a consultant we should step back and make the important calls.
My advice is very simple. If a client is behaving irrationally look at whether that behavior is stopping the company from being successful. A good example here would be Apple, which is notorious for being irrational. But you can’t argue with the success of the company or the level of its PR for that matter. If the client is succeeding despite the issues you can see, then you should find sensible ways to deal with the challenges the client is creating. This may mean gently pushing a better agenda and approach. In other words be a consultant BUT recognize the limitations of your assignment. The exception is of course where the client’s behavior is damaging your business by destroying your staff’s morale etc. In that instant you need to step forward and protect your business.
Where a client is failing as a business AND is behaving irrationally then you need to step up and be a consultant. If the client refuses to listen to your sage advice and threatens to fire you if you don’t step in line, then I suggest you politely resign the account.
In all cases agencies should not assume they know everything and that the client is stupid. Agencies often have a great view of a business but it is not always a perfect view. There is often a lot going on that we can’t see and we need to recognize that. So in short playing politics should never stop us from being consultants but it may prevent us from being the consultants we’d like to be.
Let me be clear – I’m one of those people that hates trade shows. I’m not good at small talk, I hate all the hassle of trade shows, the lines, the crappy gifts, wearing a name tag etc etc. Indeed I hate them so much that I’ve been predicting their death for years. Yet as the big consumer electronics (CES) show gets underway in Las Vegas this week, it’s clear that these trade shows have a role in their industries. They create a deadline by which companies have to make decisions, they create meeting places where collaboration on future projects start; and they create a showcase for the introduction of products both good and bad. In short they are a good way of getting people to pull their fingers out and get stuff either done or started.
In general I know the trade show business has been through years of decline. Apple doesn’t even attend Mac World anymore and once famous shows like COMDEX have vanished. For those of you who weren’t around for the COMDEX madness, hotel rooms were like gold dust and cab lines in Vegas were routinely over an hour long. But they did have great parties. Even without shows like COMDEX there are still plenty of major shows around. What seems to happen is that someone either evolves the content of the show or the format (or both) to stay in lock step with the way the industries they serve are evolving. That said it is somewhat inevitable that trade shows will get smaller. With social media tools now so prevalent, many of use don’t need to attend the show to get the news and feel like we were there. Indeed the only part we really miss is the networking. And let’s be honest, not much truly valuable networking takes place at these shows that couldn’t take place elsewhere.
I therefore confidently, without any hesitation whatsoever, formally predict that trade shows will carry on existing. They’ll just be different from the way they are today. How’s that for a stunning prediction? More seriously though I think the really successful shows will be smaller and more focused and their format will evolve in ways it’s hard to imagine today. COMDEX crashed and burned after it opened itself up to the public. That turned the show from a must attend event into a must avoid event. At the same time conferences such as TED and D appear to be flourishing. This shows that people still crave the content and the connections. They simply want to consume them in a smaller, more exclusive environment.
Trade shows are by definition, for the trade. So unless your trade is so big that you really do need 200,000 people to attend your show, then an event that pulls in a small fraction of that number seems destined to be a better route. Long live the specialist, awfully small trade show, that I’m not invited to.
PR agencies will at some point find themselves faced with the opportunity to work with a company that at one point in its history was a great. The brand in question was so well known that it was a household name. Years later that brand has lost its way and some rival has eaten its proverbial lunch. PR people, being the optimists they are, love the idea of making the once great business great again. Of course, deep down even they know that their chances of success are tied to what the brand in question actually does. If the client has finally start making a good product again, and started solving pricing and distribution problems, then PR can really step up and be a major part of the turnaround.
I recall being invited to try and help a once great Canadian business (there’s aren’t many Canadian tech businesses that were huge so you can probably guess who they are). I met the CEO and we talked about how they could tell their story in a better way. I threw out a tag line that summed up this approach. Following the meeting I heard that he loved the thinking that I and a colleague had given him. We were excited to be a part of this future success story. Then things went quiet and then, rather odly, we heard that our contact at the client had been asked to leave and then we heard that the tag line we’d given them was being used for all their adverts. We were paid nothing for that tag line btw. Indeed it seemed they’d used the meeting to get some free advice and were then acting on it. Of course the free advice didn’t really save the company and it has now filed for bankruptcy.
I truly believed the advice we had given was great advice. But at the end of the day the advice was about how they managed their communications and not about how they managed their business. What they needed was a better business model, not a new tag line or better messaging. When you realize that PR alone can’t really save a business it makes you (as a PRO) feel a little sad. We’d all like to think that with our help the business can be turned around. But unless the problems that got the business in to trouble in the first place have been solved, then PR will at best slow the process of decline. So next time you are faced with an opportunity to turn around the image of a company, be sure to find out that that is all that is needed and that the business itself is taking the steps it needs to to fix its underlying business. Otherwise you too could witness the death of a brand that has really sharp positioning but little else.