The latest edition of PR Week magazine features an article about PR agency structures. On the face of it, that may seem like the most boring topic in the world. For anyone in the agency business, however, it’s endlessly fascinating!
We all know that the media and marketing landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years. It’s interesting to ask how PR agencies have responded in terms of their structure and operational approach. It also begs the question: has there been any NEED to change PR agency business models?
If we’re talking here about the rise and rise of social media, another more apposite question might be: have agency people got to grips with the new social media and digital marketing age? All the changes in the world that are made to ‘structures’ won’t affect anything if PR agency people are ignorant about the new Turks on the block.
Now, if new structures (or new business models) are devised that accommodate new-age media and marketing, then we may be getting somewhere. If, on the other hand, there’s some nebulous shifting of deck-chairs along the lines of ad agencies (or even, god forbid, along the lines of responding to client needs!), then a lot of people are surely missing the point.
Effective responses to change reside in people – not structures. Flattened corporate hierarchies went a long way in recent decades towards liberating the energies of workforces across many sectors. The beauty of the agency world – PR, advertising, design, marketing and the rest – is that traditionally they have been small enough to avoid the fug of ‘corporateness’.
By virtue of being ‘small’ (in corporate terms), agencies tend to be flexible, creative and adaptable. Trying to apply business school organisational theory to agencies runs the risk of destroying the informal structures that made them so effective in the first place.
It will always make sense, of course, to look at how companies of any description are organised. Getting the most out of people and other resources is the driving force behind business progress.
As far as PR agencies are concerned, that needn’t involve structural change. Rather, the issues are about individual mind-sets and effective leadership that will embrace change and run with it – hopefully into the arms of grateful clients.
Who in the agency world can honestly say they know where social media is taking us? Some will have a good grasp of the impact social media has already had and the changed context that the digital marketing world has created. What no-one can foresee is where it’s all heading.
Less than 20 years ago, search engines weren’t on anyone’s radar. Five years ago or so, the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn were marketing unknowns. What will happen in the next ten years – and the impact it will have on marketing – is almost impossible to predict.
Changes made to agency structures now may be obsolete or, even worse, hopelessly inefficient in five or six years time. The best way to respond to change is to keep things informal and generate a culture of awareness and responsiveness to the kaleidoscope of ideas, technology and techniques that are no doubt spooking ‘traditional’ agencies in 2011.
It’s right that people in the PR industry are questioning the status quo. Change can be a threat if it’s not addressed. With the appropriate responses, however, it can present new worlds of opportunity. Age-old arguments about whether PR people should be ‘generalists’ (for which, read: G & T-tainted dilettantes) – or specialists in areas such as social media, web development or video obviously raise questions about how people-skills are organised within agencies.
Yes, we know that these skills go down in the lift every night. PR is a ‘people business’. Not surprisingly, though, people don’t respond well to the heavy hand of ‘structural engineering’, particularly when it constrains their creative side.
Surely, a more productive approach would be to focus on individual development, ‘training’ if you will. In an age where the rate of change is accelerating beyond belief, constant skills appraisal and injection (not the more complacent-sounding Continuous Professional Development!) should be a bigger priority than changing job titles, departments and command chains.