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As more marketing functions move in-house, what is the role of agencies?

Every PR wants, no needs, to feel wanted. But in a world of in-house PR teams, shared internal services and shrinking external agency budgets, is there still as much need for third parties to advise on, and execute, media policies?

The answer, with a little modernisation, is an emphatic yes.

PR’s big sister, advertising, led the way. Consumer brands especially have used in-house teams for decades. That Specsavers or Stella Artois TV ad you like so much, was likely produced by an award-winning in-house team. But working in-house on already-known brands, where TV campaigns and products are planned well in advance, is very different from digital PR’s cut and thrust.

Advertising continues to move in-house. A recent World Federation of Advertisers report, showed a 23% increase in members using in-house agency type provision. Now, four out of five surveyed have some in-house capabilities. PR too has seen the rise of in-house PR, content and media relations resources, often to cope with the sheer number of social channels which need managing.

Mad Men no more

Gone are the days when global PR mega-agencies went into battle against each other with grandiose ‘Mad Men’ pitches. This is no bad thing. Our favourite ‘back in the day’ anecdote involved motorbike taxis racing through Central London and sweeping into vast derelict industrial buildings with stages bedecked with expensively imported flowers.

Despite the times, clients and PR budgets all changing, external agencies, working across digital channels for many brands, undoubtedly still bring an edge. This applies even in deeply unfashionable B2B markets, where internal teams can often worry the technical superiority of their brand may be lost in translation by an external PR team.

Credibility vs creativity

In-house creativity is an issue. A narrow focus on internal decisions blunts the commercial acumen of internal ‘agencies’. Paying more attention to internal moves naturally means less time observing trends as they reach tipping points and so stifles the creativity vital to cut through in today’s incessant market for attention.

In some cases, this lack of creativity could be a generational issue. Relying on ideas proven by others can seem a safer bet to a time-served exec than taking on board the young team’s ideas brainstormed during the corporate away day.

This though may actually be a long-term mistake. The wisdom to sort ‘warmed over’ ideas from true innovation, is where great in-house leaders get the most from their external PR counsel.

Combating groupthink

Those who rely solely on in-house teams, without genuinely independent external voices, can suffer from groupthink. That tends to happen most in hierarchical in-house teams where promotions may depend on pleasing the boss. It is no coincidence the biggest PR howlers are those where no internal decision maker stood back for a few minutes and thought ‘outside the box’ about the potential to upset audiences.

Today’s consumers are PR’s digital dictators, changing preferences quicker than traditional PR brand guardians can keep up with. Without a ‘finger on the pulse’ of changing fashions, brands can become irrelevant with a single snarky post.

The new PR deal

There is a compromise. Today’s in-house PR teams are brilliant at managing press office functions, often in parallel with external pitching teams. Managed well, this avoids bandwidth issues, allowing in-house teams to concentrate their internal resources where they are best deployed. The key is to play to the strengths of each side.

We see a new relationship emerging between in-house comms talent and PR agencies. Our teams now regularly work alongside in-house teams, acting as a global resource and providing external creative inputs, corralling regional and national agencies, pulling in experts from our network.

Our teams also lead on specific projects with goals outside the remits of internal teams, including writing TikTok video scripts for campaigns, advising on conference venues or commissioning independent global research projects.

When driven by clear objectives, this works well for both client and agency. The external provider acts as a catalyst for future strategic direction and the in-house commissioning team stays close to its brand and management. The client gets cost-effective access to external talent and our network of freelance specialists, who may not feel ready or willing to work in a corporate role and would not normally have access to more ‘grown up’ clients.

Reduced risks

Those who want to write off the external PR agency model as outdated need to be careful what they are wishing for. A previous PRMoment special report, first published half a decade ago, proves the challenges facing in-house teams.

They have not changed all that much. One participant commented “The variety of skills that are required mean that it’s incredibly difficult for an in-house team to recreate all of the skills that you need, and to do that is incredibly risky - to have that many people on staff.”

Hiring mistakes are a major risk which all in-house teams run. This can be costly financially and also in terms of morale of the team. Teams with weak links are weak teams.

But let’s be brutally honest about it; agencies are easier to chop and change than employees. Changing agencies, whilst often painful, at least should not run the risk of an exodus of experienced internal staff.

For external PR agencies, this is the gamble. We remain as strong as our last set of results. But for many of us the attraction of working outside of brands is the thrill of the new. They do say variety is the spice of agency life.

So are we eternal consultants still relevant? Arguably more so than ever, to more clients and on more projects. But only so long as we provide something our clients need and cannot access in-house. Clients buying into the mega agencies of yesteryear is history. We are happy to see that being a different, more modern and collaborative agency, has never made more sense.

Written by Paul Maher, CEO of marketing agency Positive

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