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Chris Hides shares his secrets of running a PR business

Quietly, but effectively, M&C Saatchi PR has grown to have a fee income of £10m and employ 125 people worldwide. The agency was founded in 2010. I recently caught up with Chris Hides, founder and managing director at M&C Saatchi PR, to talk about how the marketing communications business is changing and how this is affecting the agency market.

Do you think the marketing communications market is shifting in its demands towards what PR agencies offer, or are PR agencies evolving into other areas of marketing communications?

I think that both of these things are happening. The last five years have seen PR mature and grow in popularity, being increasingly used as a more strategic tool by businesses and brands. The discipline has evolved to offer more now than ever before.

This is in part because of the more prominent role it is playing, but also because, as we all know, the world we are living in has undergone radical change technologically, socially, culturally and politically in recent years. Progressive PR agencies have been quick to adapt to this, offering work that traditionally would have come from other disciplines. This includes ideas that previously would be considered as the realm of advertising or direct through to media planning and buying. In addition, other agencies that were traditionally in advertising or direct have evolved too; they are looking at earned media or working with bloggers and influencers. We are all, essentially, evolving into the same territory which is going to make the next five years interesting and highly competitive. We believe here at M&C Saatchi PR, that we are set up to meet the modern needs of today’s brands, but we are constantly looking to adapt. It’s impossible to sit still.

How do you evolve the offer of a consultancy business – is it just about employing people with different skills?

Hiring the right people with the right skills will always be a fundamental part of a successful, growing consultancy. However, the important bit lies in choosing the right areas to evolve into before you go and find those people. We obviously expand into areas where there is client demand but we make sure there is always a connection to our core business. Our philosophy is Brutal Simplicity of Thought so we think it pays to try and keep things simple.

We also try and avoid bandwagonism, preferring instead to understand how new and emerging areas can best benefit our clients before committing to them wholesale. We have, for example, been evolving our offer around influencers and our clients have responded incredibly well because they can see we understand how they fit into the mix and how to make best use of them.

Often PR firms add on services to much fanfare, but the demand from clients doesn’t come – what is the key to cross-selling agency services?

Our whole proposition is built on being able to give clients the best solution to their problems. This almost always requires specialists that come from different disciplines and we have specialists in a range of skills from strategy and creative to social, digital, content, corporate, consumer, experiential, and pretty much every sector from retail to food and drink to travel and fashion. This is where cross-selling, if you want to call it that, comes from in our business. We don’t see it as cross-selling though, more like matching the right mix of people to the client’s needs and challenges.

You have grown quickly over a sustained period – retaining your best talent seems pretty critical to this success. How to you keep your best people?

It’s pretty simple, you have to create an organisation they want to be a part of. This is about having a clear vision, everyone supporting that and knowing what their part is in delivering it and then making sure they are recognised and rewarded for that. We have also developed a proposition, Driven by Passion, which is based on our people. The idea is that we aim to attract clients our people want to work for – the agency writes the prospecting list – and we put people onto the accounts they are passionate about. It sounds obvious but it’s surprising how many agencies resource by availability rather than by personal passions. We also give everyone a passion day which is a day off to do something they’re passionate about and we’ve had people go on flower-arranging courses, spend days working with surf brands, running supper clubs, visiting galleries, underwater jet-skiing and so on.

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