Is the structure of traditional PR agencies fit for purpose?

“I think it's widely recognised that the traditional PR agency of old is on its way out” says Pete Hendrick, managing director, at agency Rocket Communications. But what does the new agency look like? Hendrick believes that today’s agency must focus on providing value; align itself more closely to marketing; and use latest technologies to evaluate campaign success. Plus it is important to have a greater variety of talent in the agency, to meet the increasing demand for digital expertise.

Hendrick explains: “We’ve had to review how we operate to make sure we have people with the right skill sets. This means hiring people that may have traditionally sat within creative agencies and ensuring that we’re training our existing people so that they have the necessary skills to be able to oversee integrated campaigns.”

The digital revolution has transformed how agencies work and who they employ. Jim Hawker, co-founder of PR agency Threepipe, says his agency took the decision to merge with a digital marketing agency last year. He describes the pressures that led to this move: “This was initially driven through the Panda and Penguin updates to Google and the way that SEO was moving more into the territory of PR agencies. Facebook’s new algorithm was also a game-changer for PR agencies managing communities. We are now in the process of integrating what we do within a wider range of digital marketing techniques including display, search and affiliate marketing.”

Hawker believes that it is vital for agencies to have these digital skills, as clients increasingly want one agency that can manage key aspects of its digital marketing and not manage channels in isolation of each other: “Traditional PR agencies are lacking crucial skills in technical and data expertise. Our challenge is to marry the traditional creative PR approach with the data and insight driven world of wider digital marketing channels. This is not easy to achieve and is counter-intuitive to most PR agencies, but this is increasingly what clients want.”

The huge demand for digital expertise may be fairly recent, but effective PR agencies have always evolved to meet their clients’ needs. Martin Brindley, managing director Europe at PR agency Davies Murphy Group believes that successful agencies help their clients to meet their strategic goals: “We have always believed that it isn’t about the services the agency sells – it’s about solving the client’s business challenges. All of the campaigns and programmes we run are engineered to generate a desired business result – whether it’s to increase sales, enhance reputation, increase market capitalisation or resolve a crisis.”

Beth Murray, associate director at PR firm Lansons, agrees with Martin saying that clients are looking for value across the board, and adds that they also expect their agency to be fully integrated. She concludes: “Increasingly, we’re seeing demand from clients to show not just that we understand their agenda, but that we have an active role in helping set the agenda. For instance, last month we set up and ran the ‘Future of Financial Services’ conference for 200 delegates, with speakers including the head of the financial regulator.”

Car brands demand different agency skills and working structures

Business information company Pearlfinders spoke to marketers at Ford, Suzuki, Honda, Peugeot and Toyota to find out how they are changing the way they work with PR agencies to create and implement digital strategies. Pearlfinders managing director Anthony Cooper outlines the conclusions:

“Global automotive brands have an ever-growing demand for digital services. In response, new approaches are being taken, including embedding digital teams in-house, and decoupling production and creative for digital.

“Driving efficiency and performance across digital campaigns is something all five of the brands pursue continually. Each is also exploring the potential for deepening relationships with a single digital supplier, whether that is for back-end work in the case of Suzuki, localisation for Peugeot, brand consistency for Toyota, or building trust at Honda.

“Embedding is an increasingly popular model adopted to improve communication, reduce costs and maintain consistency across different channels. It’s worth noting that many brand-side marketers like to get out of the office regularly, however. For Ford, keeping an agency in London has numerous cultural benefits, while Honda prefers to embed its marketers in the agency to deepen the relationship and benefits.

“Most marketing decision-makers agree that finding technical and creative excellence in equal measure within one agency is a rarity. You need to work out where your offer fits in relation to brand’s desire to decouple the two, or be prepared to provide a very compelling argument for doing both.

“Social is perhaps the hardest discipline to shoehorn into these emerging business processes, due to its cross-departmental and cross-functional nature. Greater brand emersion for agencies is a good selling point for an embedded approach, although you will need to achieve buy-in from more than just the digital team for it to become an effective solution.”

Written by Daney Parker

PRmoment Awards 2019