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Five lessons to help PR prepare for the fourth industrial revolution, from Omnicom’s David Gallagher

As PR consultancies and the rest of the world hurtle towards what some call the “fourth industrial revolution” (following agriculture, mass production and the digital transformation), it’s worth seeing what from the factory age can be left behind.

Quite a lot, it turns out. The industrial era – number three - centred on a few interlocking concepts: efficiency (production and distribution); hierarchy (management); and homogeneity (parts and processes). The new age may not move from these ideas completely, but it’s likely to find its own foundation in ideas like connectivity, complexity and versatility - notions that at least challenge the old worldview.

So what from yesterday can be left behind, or at least reduced, as we pack for tomorrow?

  1. A “work-shift” mentality. Presenteeism – the commitment to eight-hour shifts on the factory floor that Fiona Chow of The Hoxby Collective called “vicious and damaging” – has little value in the modern agency. Flexible work environments and schedules can improve quality, productivity and take a slightly lesser toll on consultants.
  2. Command-and-control management structures. The boss barks at the foremen (or forewomen), who bark at the workers, who bark back quietly at the pub. This is an efficient means of distributing barks, but not necessarily for delivering good advice, creative ideas or effective content. Flatter, purpose-built structures can yield better service with less waste and overhead.
  3. Hub-and-spoke distribution. For goods manufactured centrally and moved along the rails or shipping lanes, hubs to receive and push them down subsidiary lines makes sense. And it stands to reason that professional service firms would cluster around their client structures. But when the premium is on human insight, audience relevance and creativity, it makes sense to bring consultancy as close to the action as possible.
  4. The gender pay gap. Any historical claim that men need more money than women for the same work has long since been overtaken by demographics. Agencies are making progress in closing gaps between like for like jobs, but much remains to be done.
  5. Knowledge versus skills. In the old days, workers might receive minimal instruction for operating machines and completing tasks. A few might get the opportunity to update their skills as processes evolved, but most had to simply hope age or technology or both wouldn’t outpace their value. Successful agencies of tomorrow will commit to learning, not just training, and knowledge, not just skills, to maintain a versatile, fast and effective workforce.

With the industrial age came, eventually, massive transformations to human society: urbanisation, globalisation and, albeit unevenly, democratisation. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Hard to say objectively, but without industrialisation there would never have been such a thing as a PR consultancy.

It’s up to us to decide whether there might be such a thing in the next age, too.

Article written by David Gallagher, president, growth and development, international at Omnicom Public Relations Group

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