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Four problems ingrained in most PR agencies and how to fix them

Number of years may not be the best measurement of experience, but you can’t rush and fake experience either. As an ambitious young man, I fought a baby face and a lack of miles on the clock with an insatiable appetite for learning. I would soak up everything I could from training, working alongside more senior colleagues, and testing myself out on new challenges.

As a fresh-faced communicator I compensated for a lack of experience with a confident belief that I could figure most things out. I was, you could argue, more often than not acting out what I thought to be right rather than knowing what was right based on experience. My old agency even went as far as to hire a RADA coach to help people to act the part.

If you are lucky enough to work in a dynamic environment then by the time you have five to ten years’ experience in PR and communications, you will have accumulated considerable skills to bring to bear on client challenges. Unfortunately, the hierarchical pyramid model that is the template for traditional agencies means that just when communications practitioners are starting to reach their peak they are pushed into management structures, which mean that instead of passing on this value to clients they become bogged down in the world of management. Rather than pushing on, their learning curve is broken and they are tasked with bringing the most junior people up the ladder.

Management is a different type of learning and a rewarding path for some, but the reality is that it is a distraction from delivering great work for clients. Look at a lot of agencies and you will see that 40%-50% of their employees will have less than a few years’ experience. These are the worker bees. They do the vast majority of work for clients. Their superiors are tasked with training, line management, providing quality assurance, and managing budgets and agency finances.

There are four problems with this ingrained agency template:

There’s the classic problem of bait and switch. Agencies present their most experienced consultants in pitches, but are not always honest that these individuals will do very little to service their account beyond admin and management.

There’s an industry reputational issue in that we want PR to be seen as strategic and we want to have a seat at the top table, but generally speaking, our top people are not actually on the tools. This is in stark contrast with other professional services sectors like law and accounting where the top stars are highly billable.

There’s an ethical issue with the pricing of agency resources. A typical London agency account executive will be charged out at £100 per hour, be expected to do 100+ hours of billable work per month, and generate fees in excess of £120k per year. That same account executive will be on a salary of around £20k. So agencies are charging out their junior resources at between five to six times what they are paying for them. This feels very hard to justify.

There is a serious problem with the learning curve for the industry’s best talent. Not everyone wants to become a manager and yet nearly every employee in the traditional agency template will be funnelled up the same career path from practitioner to manager. This is a serious problem. It’s a serious problem because it means that we are taking our best people off the tools, we are forcing people who might not even want to be managers down a path that they are not passionate about, and we putting an artificial break on the further learning and development of our industry’s talent.

If we truly want to push the boundaries of what is possible for clients then we have to find alternative models of working that allow senior practitioners to develop their careers outside of the traditional management funnel. By creating alternative structures that mean senior practitioners can extend their careers as consultants rather than managers we have the potential to significantly drive up the overall quality of skills and experience we can deliver clients.

The funny thing is that when you build an agency around experience rather than low-paid labour you actually create an agency culture that requires less management because your team can self-manage because they know what they are doing.

I believe that the future of our profession, the way we are perceived, and the value we can deliver, is bound up with fixing this broken learning curve. There are nine different coloured belts in the martial arts hierarchy starting with white and finishing with black. I’d argue that today we are getting a lot of our talent to the middle-ranking blue belt. Wouldn’t it be incredible to strive for an industry of black belts?

Having spoken to a number of people at the blue-belt level for jobs at Tyto I can tell you that there is deep frustration and boredom among this layer of talent and they are crying out for the opportunity to experience new challenges and test their skills at a higher level. They want to spark off other blue belts and learn from more experienced practitioners not always be looking down to manage the growth of others.

It is time for us to wake up and recognise this ingrained problem, and to start looking up and focusing on how we can develop more of our talent into black-belt communicators. If we are to thrive in the coming world of robots and AI this will be essential.

Article written by Brendon Craigie, co-founder of agency Tyto PR

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