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Agency v In house:  Mike Love compares his in-house career with his time in agency

3rd January 2016


I've now spent three years working as a PR* consultant with a leading global agency following 35 years working “in-house” with a political party and five global corporations. I'm not sure a short time qualifies anybody to have an opinion about anything, so I will leave insider views on consultancy to others with more experience, but I do have a view or two drawn from my time working both sides of table.

Outsider on Insider

Very few people in organisations ever see themselves, their company, brand, or people as others see them. When I was in-house, I always felt that one of the most important functions was to be, or at least play the part, of the outsider looking in. Sometimes the in-house PR person is the only one able, and willing, to give the external and occasionally unwelcome perspective.

In-house consultancy

As every boss has a boss so every client has a client, and usually more than one client and more than one boss. In many ways in-house PR people are consultants too. The more complex and multi-layered the management matrix of an organisation, the greater that consultancy role can be. Different business divisions, subsidiary companies and managers and directors from diverse parts of a large company can all be clients of the PR function. In some cases they can be paying clients. When I worked at McDonald's and my budget was funded not by the company, but by “co-operatives” of franchisees who voted on my communications plans. I regarded every franchisee as a client because it was their money paying for my work.

It’s lonely in-house

Consultants spend all day everyday talking, being around, and working with other people in the same field, either as colleagues or clients. In-house PR people can feel alone within a business. Not many executives in companies think PR people contribute anything at all to the bottom-line, until something goes wrong of course. I think this is why so often the agency  account lead can end up being their client’s confidant, counsel and therapist!

Experts in everything

In-house PR practitioners tend to be “jacks of all trades” whereas consultants tend to be experts and specialists in a particular type of PR work based on their role, experience, interest and training. That’s what clients buy - expertise. In-house people have to know PR too, but to be taken seriously by their non-PR colleagues they must also be expert in the minutiae and processes of the business and operations of the company or organisation in which they work if they expect to be credible and heard. In each of my in-house roles I spent a considerable time out at the coal-face of the businesses, not just observing but working in customer-facing roles, getting to know the people who worked in the company and trying to understand a little at least about their jobs. I “worked” or at least visited on farms, restaurants, food processing plants, emergency call-centres, software R&D units, and went out on the road with security guards. I also spent time, usually unsuccessfully, trying to fathom business processes and financial structures. One of my past CEOs told me to “take time learning how we make money … then you can do some PR.” It was sound advice.

Time is money 

When working consultancy side, even if not charging on the clock, everybody knows the value of their time, because time is one of the things we sell. A consultant earns or costs the agency money. Time is money. In-house I didn’t think that way, although maybe I should have. Very few in-house people in my experience put a price on their time. Work simply fills all and any time - and life - available without challenge or calculation.

The only way is ethics

This is sometimes more complicated when consultancy-side than in-house. On the whole in-house people make their big ethical decision just once - when they join a particular company. Consultants and consultancies face these decisions every day. Beyond shared basic and universal ethical codes in agencies, it is sometimes the case that individual consultants need to draw a line in the sand on the basis of personal beliefs, politics or opinions.

Learning from mistakes

PR is a lot more of a science than it used to be, but there are still rarely entirely predictable results from or reactions to PR work. Guarantees of outcome are impossible to give. The best campaigns can fail to hit the mark. So when things go wrong someone has to be blamed. The usual response from an agency head to my invitation for a lunch when I was paying would be ”Oh … we’re losing the account then?” In-house failures, in good organisations, are more often than not seen as learning opportunities. Not too many in-house people lose their jobs over a single mistake. 

Moving upwards and onwards

Naturally everybody wants to get on, but from what I have seen of both sides of the table it seems consultancy people are a lot more impatient and think in much shorter time periods as regards their careers. When in-house, people do not usually expect frequent promotions, advancements, recognitions or bonuses. Sometimes those things happen, but most often they can take a while, if at all. In the agency world people tend to look for these recognitions earlier, faster and more frequently.

Training, mentoring, community and networking

These are things we all benefit from. In the consultancy world they are requirements of the job. But in the in-house world can be rare. As an in-house PR lead I always had sizeable teams - my smallest was 12, the biggest 250. So for me the same sort of approach as is common in the agency world was important and possible in bringing people on. But I know that in smaller PR teams this is not practical, and so outside bodies such as the professional organisations are very important. The PR “professional” community is largely the preserve of consultants as industry networking is something few in-house people - at least in the private sector - see the need or have the time for. As a client it was always nice to be taken along to things by agencies and to win the occasional gong courtesy of their good efforts, but flattery and ego aside, there was no advantage to me in that kind of engagement or networking. When you’re in-house people come to you.

I didn't get where I am today ... 

In the agency world people can come from different backgrounds - usually a mix of other agency experience, in-house PR, journalism, politics or direct from academia. In-house teams can come from anywhere and any background. Probably as many PR leads come from non-PR backgrounds themselves as people who do. It is not uncommon for someone in-house to be appointed as the organisation’s communications lead without having any PR experience or training. This would not happen in the consultancy world.

My own view is that whether in-house or consultancy side, a rich mix of people coming from diverse backgrounds and with different experience and expertise always creates the strongest teams.

 Is one better than the other?

The PR people sitting on either side of the table have different roles to play in taking communications into the heart of business decision-making, driving change, and building, promoting and protecting the reputation of organisations, their brands and people. For the PR practitioner it is not a case of which is best, but which is the best fit for the individual. People with a more corporate mind-set who like being insiders will naturally favour in- house roles and those who prefer to make their contributions from outside the tent will be more suited to agency life.

In the case of people looking for their first job, I always advise agency first. Consultants will nearly always gain wider experience than in-house people gaining exposure to different kinds of organisations and cultures, diverse market sectors and a breadth of communications disciplines. In a consultancy they should learn more generic and transferable skills than in a mono-culture corporate role where they will learn how it is done in that organisation.

I think the best PR practitioners are those who have sat on both sides of the table and so always advocate gaining that experience from both.

*Note: When I use the term “PR” I mean this to include all variations on public relations and communications work. I have always regarded the distinctions between them as being largely irrelevant and I personally prefer the catch-all terminology of PR and not Comms.

Article written by Mike Love, chairmain at Burson-Marsteller



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