Agency Growth and the Market Maker Conundrum
Agencies based only on proprietary networks and privileged relationships will struggle to scale; for today’s clients such dependencies also represent a risk
The very nature of public relations mitigates against scale. At the heart of our business is a belief that our contacts, our knack of sensing news, our ability to influence action, to persuade, cajole, convince . . . is inherent to us as individuals. This is the deeper truth behind the concept of ‘spin’ which has become a badge of honour for the industry; the idea of PR as a slightly dark art based on confidences, on profound relationships that extend way beyond any single client issue.
Traditionally, rather like the days of Madison Avenue before advertising was hijacked by data scientists, great PR agencies were based on individual, often jealously guarded, relationships, an indefinable capacity to spot or shape news, and the ability to convince others of the same.
As PR professionals attempted to mimic other marketing disciplines in terms of geography and scope, the above definitions proved a barrier; how do you scale relationships or a nose for news? PR’s traditional logic of local – relationships, contexts, stories, relevance, etc – may have served a parochial industry supported by local budgets, but is diametrically opposed to the relentless currency of globality, scalability and cost rationalization which underpins the rest of the marketing services sector.
I am a strong believer in learning from other marketing disciplines, particularly when it comes to scale. However, there are a number of inherent differences when it comes to PR that have consistently mitigated against scale. Firstly, the myth of the ‘market maker’; the agency founder (often a former journalist) who has his/her finger on the pulse, who is able to reach and connect with anyone, from celebrities to politicians, and whose agency proposition is a reflection of the same. Secondly, PR is a ‘last mile’ discipline. Unlike advertising and many marketing activities, the agency is charged with actually delivering the message; the final step is not subordinated to a transaction – an advertisement, brand packaging, a statement event . . . . Responsibility and dependency for delivering the message and of convincing the recipient of its merit, whether the latter is a journalist, a regulator or another type of influencer, is with the agency or, building on the previous point, the agency’s ‘market maker’.
Both situations highlight the absolute dependency on a single or group of defined individuals, whose qualities cannot be easily replicated. Add to this the reality that PR is a real time discipline, dealing with multiple – often ambiguous or contradictory – agendas, often in absolute confidence, when the idea of scaling such a service becomes even more remote.
However, I believe that it is possible to build a scalable, repeatable PR network based on relationships and earned media. To be scalable, such relationships must be based on shared interests; real exchanges of value between a brand and its influencers. Personal chemistry remains a factor, but much of the relationship can be codified and scaled; how can an agency create value for brand and influencer, how can it establish itself as a credible intermediary, how can it nurture an environment which is mutually beneficial? Such relationships are based on respect, acknowledgement of distinct agendas but where common ground can be found.
The real-time nature of the profession also requires today’s PR teams to think on their feet, identify risk and opportunity, and adjust their course of action accordingly. Again, just like relationship management, these are skills which can be codified and taught, provided the agency is sufficiently motivated.
For agency Market Makers the secret of scale may be to actually let go. This is the PR Market Maker’s conundrum; the more dependent an agency is on him/her, the less likely it is to scale.
Codification and team empowerment also responds to another reality. While relationships and judgement remain vital – big data isn’t going to remove the humanity from our profession – so is transparency. In an operating environment increasingly demanding compliance and transparency, bands which become dependent on select agency individuals to convey their messages are exposing themselves to additional consequence. The brand’s reputation risks becoming synonymous with that of their ‘Market Maker’, uniquely charged with representing them; not a good state of affairs for PR agency or brand.
This question is an existential one for the industry; unless it re-thinks this proprietary business model, PR’s attempts to really scale will fail; PR risks remaining a ‘subordinate’ discipline within the wider marketing mix.
The reality of globalization means that PR professionals (and agencies) who are actually able to relate to and engage other people’s privileged contacts, and apply judgement in real time are more likely to prosper than those who don’t. With or without the Market Maker, this is the real secret of scale.