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Get rid of PR sweatshops, says Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s Guy Walsingham

The sweatshop model of long hours for junior employees that some PR agencies still adopt isn’t good for clients, employees and, ultimately for the agency itself. Having focused, expert teams working on carefully selected accounts is the only way to deliver the truly thoughtful, insight led work that clients need.

The factory approach falls short
With huge overheads and a need to fulfil the financial demands of shareholders, major tech PR agency groups often put profit before creativity and original thought.

Scale is a major challenge for these agencies so many hire junior, or worse, average people simply to get the work done. In many cases, the senior team pitching for a client isn’t actually the team delivering the work. Instead, work is farmed out to teams of poorly trained and loosely managed juniors. So large numbers of over-stretched people service many different accounts – without the specialist knowledge needed for the complex landscape of B2B tech. Overworked teams are expected to churn out content, without the luxuries of time or knowledge they need to produce quality work.

This environment means clients are simply not receiving the value they deserve.

Only experts can deliver quality work
Put clients’ needs first and it’s clear that they are best served by expert sector-specialist teams that only work with a handful of accounts. This boutique model gives teams more space to create, to think and to consult – providing the thought-led, insightful service clients are paying for.

It enables PROs to gain a deep understanding of both clients and their particular industries – essential to create and deliver complex B2B campaigns. And, as experts in their field, good tech PROs are able to fully engage with clients and influencers, building strong relationships and delivering value to both.  

The challenge here is how to scale this approach profitably for the agency. And it is here that many agencies fall down. The right approach in our view is a honeycomb structure of senior people providing strategic consultancy, supported by small teams of more junior staff focussed on tactical delivery. In this model the client gets what they pay for and juniors learn from the experience of senior team members and from early exposure to clients.

In-depth, long-term training is vital
Making a success of this approach relies on finding the right people to bring through the ranks – bright, confident, mature, capable – and on training them so they can take on responsibility early in their careers.

It’s easy to treat training as a tick-box exercise and too many agencies shepherd their people through low-cost and often low-value, cookie-cutter courses. Like many agencies we’ve got it wrong in the past, but we’ve learnt that the quality of the trainer and their knowledge of our work is vital. Often industry-renowned training organisations tend to be very B2C-oriented, where B2B tech requires a more bespoke approach.

When we take on less experienced people, they work closely with a senior member of the team – and get a lot of that person’s time. This mentoring aligned with bespoke external training is an approach that fast tracks the brightest people.

Investment leads to a higher retention of people – and high staff turnover with team members constantly leaving is a major bugbear for clients. High staff turnover and high client turnover tends to go hand in hand. You know that something is wrong when the average agency staff turnover is a massive 17% each year. 

We can teach people the tools of our trade, but only time can give them the experience to manage situations. It can be tough to retain people through this learning process, but if we choose the right people and are open with them we’re usually rewarded for our efforts with a stable team, a better company culture and lower recruitment costs. The average graduate tenure here is over four years. This is practically unheard of in our industry, to the benefit of our agency and our clients.

Boutique PR agencies are gaining
Fighting a factory approach makes sense commercially as well. Watch the PR industry news and you’ll notice more independent agencies winning business off the bigger tech PR groups. Independents can be more selective about the work they accept – only taking on a client if they’re certain they have the specific expertise needed to deliver.

And as advertising becomes more commoditised, PR has the opportunity to win a bigger portion of the marketing spend. Central to that offer is a strategy, story and content. Good B2B tech PR agencies should then be in a position of strength. It’s no surprise to see mid-sized tech agencies – who have led the charge to fight the factory approach – gaining ground on bigger rivals, with above average growth in the league tables.

B2B tech PR is about crafting sophisticated arguments around complex subjects and delivering them to the right audiences. It’s not an easy job, which is why it’s hard to throw juniors at it and succeed. In this thought-based industry, teams have to be structured with the time and knowledge to think if they’re to deliver great work for clients.

At the end of the day, good tech PR comes down to content – and exceptional content doesn’t come from factories. It comes from quality of thought. 

Written by Guy Walsingham CEO of PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.

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