The challenges of creating an integrated agency offer

How easy is it to make an established agency truly integrated? For large firms with a history of doing communications in a traditional way, the challenge is persuading clients that they are just as “hot and happening” as new agencies which have grown up with digital.

One large agency which is focused on change in order to stay current is H+K. Simon Shaw, chief creative officer at the agency’s ‘Global Center of Creative Strategy’ which is responsible for setting the strategic positioning and creative agenda for H+K, says: “We believe to instigate change in an ‘established’ agency you need to signpost the future, advocate that future and create some ‘chaotic’ disruption today to create change tomorrow. We have set ourselves the task of resetting the cultural norm of the agency through ‘chaotic’ disruption rather than just repositioning ourselves; it is about what we come to believe, not what we tell the world.”

Shaw believes that digital is not the be-all and end-all, but is a “red herring”, adding that “Innovation is driving change and we need to embrace innovation as part of our culture. We are encouraging open and curious minds, the digital speculators in everyone and the development of the new skills of the master storyteller. Running through everything we do is creativity – not a department, but part of a new culture.”

Digital daze

Shaw might think digital is a “red herring”, but there is no denying that it makes sense for any PR agency to have digital expertise. As Guy Walsingham, managing director of PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, says: “Traditional or not, I’d be surprised if all PR agencies haven’t em`braced digital to some degree. With the digital revolution, the good traditional agencies moved either to open separate social media arms or to add digital expertise in-house. In the B2B technology sector (where we operate) digital expertise should be seeded throughout an agency. Strategy, messaging and content is the key to success for our clients and digital engagement needs the in-depth knowledge in the account team to succeed. The traditional agencies that do this will continue to do well, the ones that don’t will go the way of the dinosaurs.”

Lisa Morton MD of a “traditional” PR agency, Roland Dransfield, also agrees about the importance of digital, and adds that you don’t have to be a digital start-up to be innovative and truly integrated. Lisa says: “Given the integration of traditional PR and digital is the crux of our current business proposition, I'd say you can definitely teach an old dog new tricks. We've pipped several digital-only agencies to the post on pitches by speaking the same language as the client and framing sometimes intimidating online methodologies in terms they can understand.”

"The key is bringing in the right people with the right skills, but also ensuring they fit the existing culture of your organisation. Similarly, we've focused on up-skilling our PR consultants on digital techniques and educating them about the workings of the online services we offer.”

Size matters

But according to Alexis Dalrymple, head of media at agency Dynamo PR, it is not whether you are traditional, it is whether you are too large, as it is harder for big firms to be integrated and meet constantly changing demands: “Trying to bring about change in a large agency can be like trying to turn around an oil tanker. You can do it, but it takes time and focus. This is one of the reasons Dynamo was set up, and from that experience it is without a doubt made it is easier to start from scratch with an integrated approach.”

“Of course, large agencies will often have more in-house resources, but until they have an integrated discipline built in with understanding (to quote one client who puts it more politely than I would): ‘I wish they would stop trying to sell me, it’s not speed dating‘.”

However, Chris Rogers, head of public relations, at public affairs agency The Whitehouse Consultancy, doesn‘t agree that newer agencies are necessarily at an advantage: “Newer agencies might grow up with digital, but established agencies have embraced it – whether that means training staff or recruiting specialists.”

“Digital is now an intrinsic part of any campaign, and any agency that doesn’t include that as part of its offering is unable to deliver a comprehensive service to clients. For some established agencies this means establishing digital divisions and practices. For others it means ensuring PR teams have the necessary skill sets.”

Seamless integration

Jo Parker, CEO of PR agency Teamspirit, agrees that to you don’t necessarily have to be a new agency to be integrated, but that you need to have integration built in: “We have always believed in and behaved as a full-service, integrated agency. My view is that you can’t suddenly adopt that mind-set – it is either in your DNA or it isn’t. As a result, we’ve always been channel agnostic and invest to ensure that everyone in the agency is digitally empowered and enabled. We’ve avoided silo thinking by putting digital at the heart of all we do rather than creating a separate division or buying a digital agency as others have done. Increasingly, we find with our team that the younger talent just don’t see the barriers and demarcations of traditional agencies – they are digital natives and naturally think and work this way anyway. This has just reinforced our culture and strategy.”

For Jim Hawker, owner of PR agency Threepipe, it is not the age or type of an agency that matters, so much as its size. Hawker concludes that an integrated agency can’t be too large, but on the other hand, it can’t be too small: “Having created an integrated agency over the last two years I have seen how challenging and difficult this has been to do. There is no way we would be able to compete in the digital space without having merged with another agency with paid search, SEO and analytics expertise. We were winning digital awards before the merger, but were way off the pace of what was happening outside of the PR world. Larger PR agencies are stuck in silos from a group-owned perspective or are too large to change fast enough. Small agencies can’t afford to invest to bring in the right skills to transform the agency. It will be the mid-sized agencies that have the greatest potential to succeed and compete not just with PR agencies, but with media buying and digital agencies. This all requires strong leadership coupled with high levels of digital knowledge as well as money to invest – all three of those things aren’t necessarily there at the moment.”

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