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The race for integration: Who are PR agencies competing against?

27th June 2013

Specialist agencies, management consultants, advertising agencies, in-house teams and freelancers … just some of today’s PR agency competitors

As PR agencies change to meet new client demands, the range of competition that they face is widening. In a pitch situation, for example, a small PR agency could be up against an array of other pitching teams, ranging from social media specialists to the client’s own in-house team.

This is not surprising, says Zoe Ward-Waring, UK managing director at communications agency Publicasity, as PR continues to evolve at such an exciting pace. Ward-Waring claims that the key to getting shortlisted by clients is to prove that you add value: “Given the economic climate, the client's pencil has sharpened with value intrinsically linked to consultancy at the tip. Therefore we're increasingly seeing a different landscape in the world of pitching for and retaining business.“

Specialist boutiques

Ward-Waring lists the types of competition that her agency faces these days: “We're seeing ourselves up against the specialist boutiques either by sector or practice area, the media buying fraternity, digital developers and even management consultants – all putting themselves forward to be the experts for the comms brief or brand guardians. This is fair competition for PR agencies as long as you can demonstrate above and beyond the expected media black book into broader marketing services and deliver more than implementation mixed with the essential dose of creativity.”

Social media teams

The rise of the importance of social media has had a dramatic effect on how both clients and PR agencies work. As Alex Witham, PR executive at agency Manifest Communications, says: “Years ago, managing social media was a specialised skill that was sought after in any PR professional, however, these days, anyone who owns a smart phone can administer a Twitter or Facebook account. Therefore, many companies have since chosen to move their social media activity in-house rather than out-sourcing from an agency.”

Describing how this has affected Manifest Communications, Witham says: “We have had to rethink our approach to social media, and make sure we offer something that is both comprehensive and adds value. For example, not just looking after Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, but expanding our offering to include the management of a client’s Instagram, Pintrest and Google+ accounts.”

Advertising agencies

Apart from the challenges that social media present, Witham says that a key competitor for PR agencies are advertising agencies: “PR services are permanently in competition with that of advertising agencies. When a business is deciding whether to place its money in the direction of editorial or advertorial, It is up to a PR agency to demonstrate that its pound can go a lot further if deposited in the editorial bank, rather than the advertorial.”

In-house teams

In-house teams have always been a source of competition for agencies, but their power is growing stronger now claims Samantha Howard, freelance communications consultant: “As comms moves up the boardroom agenda, the main competition now for agencies is with in-house teams. In-house comms know the company and its customers better than an outside agency.” However, agencies do have some key advantages over in-house PR departments, Howard points out: “ What in-house teams can lack is the external point of view and how to tell their story in the context of the broader issues, plus they may also lack the full skillset required to implement a fully integrated campaign. Agencies need to be mindful of this and tailor their offering around strategy, applied creativity and providing specialist skills.”


Another threat for PR agencies are freelancers says Howard: “Alongside the bulking up of in-house teams there is the shrinking duration of a retainers, so bands of freelancers or co-ops are increasingly becoming valid competition. Small teams of freelancers can often have more flexibility and a lighter touch than an agency. They are happy to pop in, do the project, and go. This is counter-intuitive for many agencies who prefer longer-term commitments.“ Howard also points out that it is hard to compete with freelancers in terms of fees: “If a client has say £3K a month for a retainer, that’s small for an agency and realistically account director time would be around half a day a month. Whereas in the world of freelance, £3K is a sizeable amount of money and gets you more like six days of account director time – as it tends to be the more senior staff that turn freelance.”

Written by Daney Parker

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