Can the new PR punks save our industry?

Things are on the up in PR with revenues up a healthy eight per cent on last year. If you look at graduate recruitment specifically, it is now at its highest since 2007.

For the past four years, I have headed up a London PR internship programme for a US university. In previous years, it has often taken around six months to secure suitable internships for my group of 15 or so MA students. But 2014 saw a marked increase in demand and they were all placed in around three months, in fact I unearthed more great opportunities than I had interns. Hurrah!

But here is the thing – who exactly is going to manage these new recruits and teach them our ways?

The present generation of account directors grew up in the equivalent of war-time rationing, working with reduced client budgets, non-existent internal budgets and being forced to adopt a recession-based management style: cautious, risk averse and desperate to keep the account at all costs. Is it any wonder that agency Ads are moving in-house, looking for a saner more stable environment, one that’s more conducive to family life? And in-house is only too glad to have them, with today’s trend for bulking up the corporate comms team.

Anyone with two to five years’ experience is hard to find in any industry. Thanks to the recession we have skipped a hiring generation. Not only that, but for many years, training, development and general people investment have all been corners that were the first to be cut. So those few who were recruited and managed to survive and thrive, were tough self-starters. Not necessarily the types to want to micro-manage or molly-coddle junior talent, they are much more likely to have their eyes on the prize of filling in an AD role.

Agency revenues may have doubled in the last ten years, but what about the profits? It’s generally recognised that a healthy agency wants to be looking at a 15 to 20 per cent margin, but the last figure I saw said in 2013, an agency was averaging around 10.6 per cent. This is because of a fear of putting up rates combined with over-servicing. In an effort to hang on to the account at all costs, over-worked and over-wrought ADs and thinly spread AMs have been giving away one hour in every five, just to keep everyone (apart from the CFO) “happy”.

So what do we have here?

  • Growing demand for services, which have become leaner and quantifiably stronger through the recession years.
  • A thin upper and middle management layer with little time for micro management, structure and process.
  • A business model that’s been coerced into giving it away.
  • A general economy on the up.

Sounds to me like the perfect market conditions for radical change. Let’s hope that the new blood coming into the industry, tech-savvy and unfettered by too much training or over-management, the new “PR punks”, will be the ones to make us proud and profitable once more.

Samantha Howard, founder of agency The Comms Crowd

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