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.


Digital is a massive opportunity for PR but…

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.


Is Digital PR different for B2B than B2C?

The short answer is: yes and no.  Very helpful I know.  Before I explain, let me first say I am an unashamed fan of digital.  I think the way that it has transformed all forms of marketing is exciting.  After all, it offers brands a whole new way to create markets and sell products.  But I fear that little attention has been paid to differentiating the use of digital for reaching consumers versus business decision makers (BDMs).  Indeed it’s as if digital makes everyone a consumer and therefore regardless of whether you marketing shampoo or web servers, you should offer customers the same broad strategies and the same types of tactics.  I take issue with this.  Consumers have different reasons for buying your products and or services than BDMs.  When you market to consumers you are trying to get them to buy your products and feel good about your brand.  When you market to BDMs you are, more often than not, trying to convince them that your products will help them sell more products.  Perhaps the best way to help people think about this divide is to imagine a consumer campaign and then a B2B campaign.  If you were doing digital comms for a consumer brand such as a car you might:

1.  Monitor the conversations taking place around that type of car and decide if you wanted to join these conversations or start your own.

2.  You would create content (blogs, podcasts, videos etc) that created an emotional and or intellectual connection between your brand and consumers

3.  You would build car enthusiast communities that connected your consumers to each other and to your brand (you would also join existing communities).  This is where Facebook and Twitter etc come in.

4.  You would optimize all the content you’d already produced and were producing so that it was easy for consumers to find and so that it helped you drive people towards a place where they can purchase the car that was after all at the center of the campaign.

In a B2B world all of the above apply.  However, if you now imagine that the product you were trying market was headlights that go into that car, then you create very different content, join radically different conversations, build different communities and so on.  This is partly because the communities you are dealing with are a lot smaller but also because, quite clearly, the people you are trying to reach are interested in very different things.  Of course good B2B campaigns also try and reach the end consumer to create some pull for their products through the channel.  This is called ingredient branding and is an approach Intel has used for years, with its Intel inside campaign.  Companies that run these kids of campaigns can easily utilize digital as a channel and people like Intel do just that.  I guess the difference that digital makes is that it’s actually possible for people to run ingredient branding campaigns using digital at far lower costs than they would have in the old world.  Intel has spent many millions (many, many in fact) on this campaign over the years.  This helped them lock out competitors and build market share.  But they were/are a rich company with a lot of cash to throw at this challenge.  Small companies can’t afford Intel-like ad budgets but they can afford to create their own podcasts, content for the web, YouTube video and host a Facebook community aimed at the end-consumers.  Put another way, they are less budget constrained and more ‘make it interesting’ constrained.  After all, if you are  a maker of car headlights, you may need to get pretty creative to make consumers love your brand or your products.  But if creativity is the only challenge, I know plenty of PR agencies who’d say:  “bring it on.”


What digital services do PR agencies need to offer?

PR agencies are jumping on the digital bandwagon and rightly so.  But what constitutes digital?  A lot of agencies describe digital as social media relations, or online PR.  In that regard they embrace social networks (they monitor them and find ways to create communities for their clients).  They also embrace bloggers and of course all the online publications and wikis.  Much of this shift to digital is simply replacing traditional media with online content sources.  I’d argue that such an approach is not true digital but a much narrower form of digital communications.  True digital is far more complex and difficult.  My description of digital embraces:

  1. Analytical tools and services that enable companies to fully understand the extent to which they and their rivals are participating in the conversations and communities in the digital world.  And some insight into what to do next!
  2. Search skills and the ability to influence the terms people use when searching for clients and their rivals.  SEO skills are not a part of most PROs toolkits.  They will be though.
  3. The ability to design and build web properties.  Right now agencies are outsourcing the task of designing and building micro-sites etc.  But the structure and content of web properties is increasingly becoming a more central service and not a skill that should sit outside the firm.
  4. Connection to CRM technology and the customer support side of the business.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the join between customer relations and public relations, thanks in large part to the online relationships that now exist around brands.  This creates both a technology and skill challenge for agencies.
  5. Creative direction.  The concept of having a creative director is not a common one for many PR agencies.  Indeed, we often assume that all our people are creative.  With the convergence of digital advertising and digital communications, many clients actually expect to see a creative director.  Furthermore, B2B PR actually needs another level of creativity.  In B2B PR we are so used to focusing on key messages that we can forget the value of simply making people enjoy their connection with the brand.  Consumer PR people understand this challenge well, which is why creative teams and creative directors are more common in that world.  Put another way, we engage with brands intellectually AND emotionally.  B2B PR tends to focus on the former.  In a digital world it has the chance to put equal focus on the latter.  Bring on the creative director.
  6. Community building skills.  PR firms are used to leveraging influence through existing communities.  For example we use the editorial or blogger community to get our messages out there.  We are embracing Facebook and Twitter but we need to do a LOT more.  We need people who can really build communities.  This thinking goes well beyond Facebook and even Ning and Grouply.  It needs to embrace online and offline community management skills.

There are actually other areas, such as video content that a true digital agency should embrace but hopefully this shows that digital done right is a lot more than just basic social media relations.  This transition is going to be fascinating. I’m dying to see who the new kings and queens of communications will be.