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.
We all have our favorite way of getting a point of view across. This includes the structure of our arguments and the channels we prefer. Yet if the digital revolution has taught us anything it’s that people want to consume content and conversations through their favorite channels, not the ones we may prefer. So it concerns me that so many social media gurus are almost exclusively using Facebook and Twitter to help drive interaction with customers. My fear isn’t that these are the wrong channels but rather that we are in danger of simply replacing an old set of channels (traditional media) with a new and arguably narrow set (social media). In other words we are moving from people that were good at getting news media to get our news out, to people that are good at tweeting. There is surely a lot more to digital than this? Done right digital is about creating channel agnostic content and by engaging with the customer through their preferred channel (rather than ours). By driving people to Facebook and Twitter we are being sensible in that a lot of people are hanging out in these places BUT we are missing a huge opportunity that digital creates and that is to be where the customer wants to have a dialog, rather than insisting they play on our pitch. Some will argue that brands have simply followed customers to these places. That is only partly true. Much of the growth of Facebook and Twitter is because brands have adopted these sites. My message to you is not that you abandon Facebook et al but rather that you shouldn’t assume that these channels are the starting point. Digital is without doubt the biggest opportunity our industry has seen in decades. Let’s not waste it.
PR agencies have been people businesses for as long as I can remember. Yet the emergence of digital has created the opportunity for these same agencies to start selling ‘technology based solutions’ (an overused phrase I know). These ‘solutions’ cover areas such as analytics, blogs, email marketing, micro site development… the list goes on. Most agencies outsource this development to… developers. This is largely because most agency heads can write a press release or a blog but wouldn’t have a clue about how to write code. Many agencies can see that if they want to get away from an hourly business model they need to sell technology IP and ideally IP that can be resold to many clients without much additional development effort. Again, though, most agencies simply don’t have the skills in house to develop the technology, or even the skills to effectively manage the development of technology. In other words, if agencies really do want to sell ‘technology solutions’ they are going to have to start hiring developers AND people capable of managing these people. If this happens the idea of a PR agency have a CTO (chief technology officer) that is client facing will become commonplace. Does your agency have a CTO? Should it?
In the last few years, PR people have rightly stopped talking about stories and started talking about conversations. The idea being that brands can start or join conversations that their customers are interested in, or are already having. They can do this by contributing news, perspective, insight and raw content. This shift is both important to the way PR is carried out and to the role it plays in the marketing process. It opens new doors and new budgets for an industry that has long believed it deserves a bigger slice of the marketing pie. But I’d like to remind PR people about something advertisers have known for a long time. Getting our attention doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in a conversation with us. My daughter’s laptop can often get her attention without any information being exchanged. She simply enjoys watching entertaining content, or playing some mindless game. She is no different from any of us in this respect. We all have parts to our day when we simply want someone to take over our brains and let us escape. Advertisers have figured this out to the extent that during some computer games, such as a car racing game, you will see billboards advertising products. They recognize that the brands that ‘sponsor’ escapism are as important as the brands that sponsor educating us about the important issues of the day or the decisions we have to make.
Now the idea of creating content that helps people escape isn’t something you hear a lot in PR meetings. PR meetings tend to be all about getting the message across in an increasingly noisy market. But what if you created content such as a game or a video that was just so darned entertaining that people WANTED to watch it AND they knew your brand had sponsored this little mental vacation? Wouldn’t that be just as powerful as that major news item you were hoping to get someone to blog about? I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all ditch conversation management and move to entertainment. I’m simply suggesting that digital channels open the doors for PR to much more than just conversations. Try this on for size in your next PR brainstorm. Oh and happy 2011.
Here are my more serious predictions. Some I want to come true, some I simply suspect have a chance of becoming reality. What’s on your list?
- Obama develops a backbone and starts to be the president we elected. He will also learn that Gibbs has to go and that he needs a far better comms team.
- Facebook or Twitter gets bought/files for an IPO (I have no inside knowledge). If this happens the IPO market will catch fire for lots of other companies.
- The Euro becomes a common currency for the chosen few of EU economies. If not at least one EU nation will file for bankruptcy (Can they do that?).
- Foursquare goes the way of Digg. Facebook’s places has already made them irrelevant. The final nail in the coffin is just waiting to be driven in.
- Microsoft Kinect will spawn a whole new category of businesses well beyond gaming. The possibilities are endless.
- A major daily newspaper will stop its printed version. The economics have pushed them all to the brink. One will jump.
- Julian Assange will end up in jail. It may not be in Sweden but he will be found charged by someone for something.
- The environment will come back on the agenda. As the economy improves people will stop worrying about their jobs and start paying attention to the horrors that climate change will bring if we don’t act.
- Those of us in PR will figure out digital comms and we’ll be shocked by what it means for us. We’ll find out either by accident or because a competitor that we never expected starts to show us the way.
- Blackberry (RIM) either realizes its products are horrible and changes path or it accelerates towards that brick wall that is currently at the end of the road they are on.