Should PR agencies develop technology? Have a CTO?

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?

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Why should companies use PR agencies?

Why should companies use PR agencies?

This may seem an obvious question, yet I’m amazed how often I hear it being asked.  For as long as I can remember, which is sadly quite a long time, the main arguments have been (here come the bullet points):

  • Agencies can provide external counsel – they will give you a perspective that you can’t see from within the company.  How often clients are prepared to take this counsel varies and is a measure of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ client.
  • Agencies act for many clients and thus unearth opportunities that in-house staff wouldn’t.  For example while talking to a reporter about a news story they can sell in another client who may offer another angle.  Reporters like this as it saves them time and that’s why reporters often also like agencies.
  • Agencies offer clients flexibility in terms of resources.  This flexibility is not limited simply to the amount of people who can be thrown at a task but also the skill set.  For example, clients don’t necessarily need certain areas of senior counsel every day, or even every week.  Agencies give them access to the talent they need when they need it.
  • Agencies bring new thinking to the mix.  Agencies see the new ways PR is being practiced by virtue of the fact that they act for multiple clients.  So when a new approach or idea gets tried for one client, others quickly benefit.  Now of course some clients may not like to think their ideas are being used elsewhere but we all know even when an idea is re-used in PR it takes on a whole different look and feel.
  • Agencies actually cost less.  Well not always but they are rarely more expensive when compared to say having a large internal team at a big company.  That said few companies seem to really make a sensible comparison here.  The total cost of an agency needs to be compared with not only the salaries of staff you hire but all the other ancillary costs that come with having an in-house team such as the office space, HR and IT support, training etc etc.

Now of course there are advantages to being in-house also which is why the most successful PR campaigns tend to bring together a strong internal team with a good agency.  Of course that’s not always an option, especially for a smaller company.  At that level having a hungry, aggressive agency is always the way to go.  Especially if you can find one that will fill your slides with bullet points ;).