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How many agencies does it take to change a light bulb?

The answer of course is 57. There’s the SEO guys, the branding guys, the PR guys, the viral guys, the advertising guys, and so on…

The fact that there are simply too many agencies to manage was raised by Will McInnes at a session I chaired this week on the future of PR. Aside from Will, I was also joined by Sarah Ogden and Drew Benvie. All super smart folks who know their onions.

The event was put together by NMK as an open invite for the PR community to chat with a bunch of digerati about the future of their industry. (Note: my role was as stooge to the smart people… I tried to be as Alan Partridge as possible by asking all the dumb questions). All in all it was a good night. NMK’s Ian Delaney has written about it here, so I won’t dig on the detail.

I did, however want to pick up on Will’s account of the evening. Too many agencies can only mean one thing – industry shakeout.

The event left me with one big impression: it seems that – where the web’s concerned – the glass is half empty for PR companies. And, as Will suggests in his blog post, this is a little bit mad because they ought to be doing good things right now, rather than worrying about where their future might lie.

Here’s my thoughts on the matter…….

PR is dead. Long live woteva.

The first thing to note is that PR is, in one important way, knackered.

When I used to run PR for IBM, all I had to do was stop or start my fellow IBMers talking to the press. Sat on the 33rd floor of an office block in Paris, I was Master of the Goddam Universe, controlling, spinning and unleashing stories to small reporter types on the street. I also had some nasty fires to fight too, but this worked out OK because I always owned the source of the story – so if it was a bad one, I just turned the sources off. In short, I was a mover, shaker, and MEDIATOR.

Today, the communications process has gotten a whole lot more complex.

Someone famous once said that ‘freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.’ Well, now we all own a press. We can blog, Twitter and generally cache our most intimate feelings on Facebook. In other words, we have the ability to publish whatever we please for the world to see. And this is very radical. Yesterday, if a software developer at IBM wanted to tell the world about a new widget he was working on, he’d have to do so via me and Computer Weekly. Today, he can do what he damn well pleases. Voila. A core function of the PR agent is toast.

So, what to do?

It’s clear that the world still needs PR agents. Companies will always need help getting published in the FT. But what about all this other web-based stuff? What does it mean and how does a PR firm deal with it?

My view is that PR firms have a simple choice. They either embrace the web or they don’t. But – importantly – it’s not live or die.

It’s just a question of what business you want to be in…

How many agencies does it take to change a light bulb?

Ideally, one – a really, really smart one. One that understands the bigger picture and helps you sell stuff to customers and who helps you use every trick at your disposal to do it fast and cost-effectively.

This type of firm exists today. Ogilvy is pretty good at it. They’re stuffed with smart people who can run campaigns across multiple channels. They don’t do everything themselves, they outsource a bunch of stuff for others to implement. But this works because they are good at directing it and getting the desired results. The problem is they’re expensive, so not every firm can use them.

For non-mega budget firms, the choice is not so good. They usually end up having to manage a bunch of disparate agencies with different skill sets – which is problematic because the onus for making the right strategy choices usually falls on them. And, as many corporate marketing directors will tell you, this is no fun. The administration side sucks, and the smart ones among them know that they simply don’t have all the answers…. particularly when it comes to the web.

So what’s a corporate marketing gal to do?

Well, one agency above all the others seems to be in a good place to help. The PR firm usually sits closely to the marketing director, advising on what should be said and done. They also usually write the script. And when it comes to the web, all of these skills are important – keywords, messages and content are the crux of any successful web campaign, be it Google Adwords, blogging, SEO, woteva.

It’s crystal ball time….

This is my ‘Future of PR’ scenario number 1….

PR firms morph into fuller service agencies that do some core strategy work in-house, but subcontract much of the ‘doing’ out to trusted partners. In the process, they might stop doing traditional PR implementation, but they definitely get some web chops. They start to advise on web development, online communications and such. They do wonderful, smart and ground-breaking work. Their marketing director clients leave their spouses and run off with them into the sunset.

(Note: this is Velocity! We do a bunch of stuff, including what we call web relations.)

My ‘Future of PR’ scenario number 2 is….

PR firms focus on their knitting, stop pretending they do web stuff, and get better and better at traditional PR (after all, there’s change a plenty in the world of publishing and someone’s got to work out better ways to influence the new breed of reporter). In the process, they let other firms become type 1′s, and they focus a lot of their attention on building strong sales relationships with them. They do wonderful, smart and ground-breaking PR work. They leave their spouses and run off into the sunset with agency type 1.

(Note, this is also a GREAT business to be in!)

B.Y.O.B: Bring your own bottle (show, don’t tell)

But how to become a type 1?

Well, this type of firm has to be all things to everyone…. which is hard when it comes to the web because it moves so fast.

You can, however, succeed in making the transition. As many of the panelists this week noted, the biggest success factor lies in simply just doing it. That’s right, don’t wait for the inspiration to brand your offering or try to figure out how to apply the old rules to the new environment, JUST DO IT!

When it comes to selling web services, take a leaf out of our book. We practice this stuff ourselves, so as it evolves we can figure out the value in using it.

You see, Facebook isn’t arcane, it’s blissfully simple. It’s a smashing way of bugging your friends whilst you should be doing work. Now, there’s a tonne of great communications opportunities in there for smart consultants: things which provide value to Facebook users without abusing its conventions. But to know it you have to do it. Same with blogging and every other ‘web 2.0′ channel.

Because we use this stuff for our own communication efforts, it’s very easy for us to spot an opportunity to use it with clients and also to show them how it’s done (B.Y.O.B style). Importantly, in doing so, we always show them everything about the tools and how they’re used. Usually, this is a relief for them because deep down they know the tool set isn’t complex. (Note: this also works because they ALWAYS feel alienated when folks try to sell them a slick branded ‘productized’ service or application for something they know their teenage daughter is doing ten times better in her bedroom at home!)

When we create projects this way, we help our clients to understand where the goal posts are and we also very clearly define the value in the service itself. And this seems to me to be where the PR industry is going wrong with the web today…

It’s PR Jim, but not as we know it

What’s the point of blogging?

Here’s a stab at an answer: the point of blogging is to talk to a group of people who have an interest in you. Blogging is, after all, just an ability to publish stuff cheaply and easily and have people give you their feedback through ‘comments.’

So, what’s a good application for blogging? Well, internal departments could have one or more, to keep each other in the loop on all the cool new things that are happening. Software development firms could have one to keep their super-interested customers up to date on product planning for version 5 of their new widget.

A bad application for blogging is using one as a CEO mouth piece and cutting and pasting some PR material once a week. Yet, we often see this kind of thing happening, and I think I know why…

Many of these new styles of web publishing – blogs, Facebook, etc – ‘feel’ like the types of activity that a PR firm should be doing. They involve words and trying to influence others. This thought, however, is a mistake.

These new web apps are not the ‘new PR’ – they’re nothing to do with PR as we know it. They’re great new ways to communicate. They’re NOT great new media for channeling every possible bit of PR material that you can get your hands on. They’re different. They serve different purposes and are used in different ways.

The role of the press release is a good example of the difference between traditional PR and life on the interweb.

Traditional PR: one goal of the press releases is to help a reporter write a news story by giving him/her content to use and thoughts to consider.

Interweb: the goal of press release distribution has very little to do with generating a news story. The idea is to encourage new web pages to get generated, all with keyword-rich links back to a specific point on your web site.

Now, in order to do the first activity, I need the help of a traditional PR firm. In order to do the second, I don’t. I need either a different kind of service company to help me, or I need some extra help in-house to do it myself.

And this, essentially, is my conclusion on the whole thing… traditional PR is needed and so is the interweb stuff, but they probably shouldn’t be provided by the same service partner.

Conclusion

This rant has been circular. Forgive me if you got there ahead of time.

To summarise:

  • PR is not dead, it just has a choice to make: learn to knit better or to do other (multi-disciplined) things
  • The way to do ‘new media’ communications is to do it for yourself (and then do the same thing for your clients)
  • Don’t treat it like rocket surgery. Don’t overcomplicate it (you’ll get found out). Just do it.
  • Don’t force PR-shaped stuff into web-shaped holes. It’s dumb. Stop it.
  • Either be a good traditional PR agency or be a different kind of agency. Don’t try to be a traditional PR agency that does web – I just don’t think you can pull it off…

Footnote

Web-savvy people in traditional PR firms who are currently frustrated by their lack of opportunities should probably start their own firms or join a ‘Type 1′ agency.

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10 Responses to “How many agencies does it take to change a light bulb?”

  1. will mcinnes

    Great post Roger. I enjoyed particularly the image of you sat on the 33rd floor in Paris as a master of the universe! Must’ve been cool.

  2. Daljit B

    I’ve been reading the varied reactions to this event which is fascinating – also frustrating I had a client event so couldn’t take part.

    Anyway, having read your post there seems to be an implication that traditional agencies can’t transition or transform into your type 1 agency. Is that a fair interpretation?

  3. Roger Warner

    hi daljit – no, not exactly. my feeling is that historically, traditional agencies haven’t done a good job of it… but there exists a big opportunity because they’re sat in a very influential place. so, the view is, if they’re going to do it they’re gonna need to do so in a very focused way. and this may mean different things like changing the shape of their business around the web… or, just carry on doing normal PR things – which will continue to be a great business to be in

  4. Roger Warner

    ps: everyone – i should note that we’re in the process of migrating server platforms (to a bigger, better, shinier future). the snapshot for migration was done on friday…meaning that i have to figure out how to get all these great comments back on here when the new platform goes live. does anyone out there know how to do such a thing on WordPress?! if not – sorry – the comments may be lost : (

  5. alan p

    Great post…I thought I was doing the Alan Partridge thing so you are not alone :)

    I had an insightful comment from some interviews we are doing – todays Ad Agencies have 1950′s TV DNA, its todays small agencies that will be tomorrow’s big agencies with Web DNA

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