So what is the future for PR agencies?

It can’t just be me who’s noticed that there’s been a lot of debate in recent weeks about the future of the PR agency. Obviously, not just in recent weeks, but it does seem to have become a focused and popular topic of conversation of late.

For those of you who’ve somehow missed it, the two articles below are a helpful introduction:

But, essentially, the more you read around the debate, the more it seems to boil down to a number of fairly broad conclusions: 

1. The current structure of most PR agencies will at some point cease to be fit-for-purpose.

2. No-one knows when that point is – estimates range from now, to two years ago, to not for a while yet.

3. Although lots of people have opinions about what isn’t right, no-one has yet put their finger on exactly the right formula for PR Agencies Mark II, if this indeed exists.

4. This is about much more than “bringing in a social media expert” – it’s about responding to fundamental shifts in communications channels, in the sophistication of audience targeting, and ultimately changes in how clients will want to work with agencies (if at all).

So, I suppose the first piece of good news from all this is, if you’re gripped by a sense of vague foreboding that you should be doing something, or you’re already trying something, but aren’t sure it’s quite right, then you’re not the only one. Indeed, it’s probably a good thing – I strongly suspect if you’re completely convinced you’ve got the right answer already, then you haven’t entirely asked yourself the right question. 

The other piece of good news is, it’s not just us. In recent weeks I’ve read just as many articles from people in advertising and various strands of digital worrying about all the same things that PR agencies do. This could possibly also be viewed as bad news – there isn’t just a simple model somewhere else we can all copy – but to me indicates that we’re not losing out as badly to others in the communications world as we perhaps fear.

The simple fact of the matter is we’re in the middle of one of those seismic shifts that happens to all sectors every-so-often. We’ve had a pretty good run of things, but it’s now becoming increasingly clear that if we don’t get a grip on how our role is changing soon – and even more importantly, start getting ahead of what’s happening so we’re not just being reactive – we’re going to find ourselves caught in the middle of an unholy fight to the death between marketing disciplines. Or worse still, find ourselves becoming old-fashioned, then obsolete.  

And although competitive advantage is obviously important, my personal feeling is that we’re going to have a much greater chance of understanding where we need to be if we pool resources and learnings, and ask ourselves tough questions – why don’t clients use us for a wider range of skills? What have we got wrong already that we can learn from next time? That’s one reason I’m part of the PRCA’s PR Council Working Group on the PR Agency of the Future – to help look at what the industry can usefully do to get better insight and share ideas about next steps. Although I’m not claiming we’re going to instantly come up with the right answers, look out for something hopefully helpful later in the year.

In some ways, it’s very exciting to be part of an industry at a crossroads. In others, it’s slightly terrifying – like walking a tightrope you can’t really see. But the more we talk, the more we share, the clearer the tightrope is going to get, and the better chance we have of staying on it. It’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to.  


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