Hill and Knowlton CEO Richard Millar on why PR agencies must align their structure to clients’ needs

Clients must always come first, says Richard Millar, CEO of Hill & Knowlton.

The service industry exists to service the needs of the industries our clients operate in. We need to be shaped around them and not the other way around.

No longer can a client's requirements be neatly bundled into the practice areas which we define - be they corporate reputation, marketing communications or public affairs. What issue, for example, of public policy does not have at least the potential to have a direct impact on consumers or an impact on how a company is thought of? But it is not enough just to break down the barriers of existing practices - that is only half the job. That must be married to an increased knowledge and understanding of the industries in which our clients perform. To be able to get their messages across to new and different audiences in a language they understand, we must first have an intimate knowledge of the language and landscape of our clients.

That is a challenge which we are rising to. Our practice divisions are giving way to eight industry sectors, reflecting the range of environments our clients operate in. And now, I believe, is the time for our industry to innovate in this way. We are all emerging from the worst recession since the 1930s. But as the economy starts to take the first tentative steps to recovery, we would be foolish to believe that we will return to the way things were before the banking crisis.

Just as we have had to grow up as business people, our clients are more aware than ever of the need to squeeze value out of every penny spent. To keep our client base, and in some sectors even to grow over the last 12 to 18 months, we have had to get closer to clients and to better understand their needs and the drivers of their businesses.

We are left, therefore, not with the wreckage left after a recession, but with a foundation of greater detail, greater knowledge and understanding on which to build. The pain of the recession must be used for gain in the recovery. The changes, in some cases forced upon us, in the way we service clients must be expanded upon.

The challenge now is doubled. Where agencies of our size boasted of breadth of services, often against smaller, specialist boutique agencies, now we must combine that breadth with a depth of industry sector expertise. Clients' needs must come before industry norms and I believe our approach must be to understand their needs as a whole, not just by single issues. Individual strands of business only really make sense for the client - and add value - when they are woven into a compelling story.

We must see their business as the client does - in all its detail. The challenge is then to refract that vision through our skill set to meet the spectrum of audiences our clients need to address.

In short, that is enough about us as an industry. Our industry needs to redesign itself around our clients.

Creative Moment Awards 2020