Agency Life and the ‘Law of the Shiny Object’
A reality of agency life – especially large ones – is that not all client service work is considered equal
Let me share a professional secret. Beyond prestige, brand names, billing potential and other measures of internal prowess, there is one other criterion which surpasses all others. It could be a particular communications technique, a specific sector or market, or, even a type of client that embodies the future or aspiration of the PR firm. Such activity assumes a relevance far beyond revenue, profitability or other traditional agency metrics; as does the prestige afforded to the teams working on it.
This is ‘The Law of the Shiny Object’. In my experience – which includes over a decade at the World’s largest two firms, as well as another in start-ups, local PR firms and in-house – the larger the firm, the more palpable the effects of the Law of the Shiny Object.
Earlier in my career, online and digital PR was the most influential Shiny Object. In the mid-1990s traditional PR firms turned and twisted to accommodate these new market opportunities; in many cases, at financial cost. Since then, other Shiny Objects have included social media, integrated communications, paid media, and big data-driven campaigns. Tomorrow’s Shiny Object is certain to include elements of Virtual Reality or Artificial Intelligence.
Such innovation is welcome and necessary for the PR sector to remain relevant and prosperous. However, they can prove counter-productive for PR firms if they are introduced at the expense of their core competences . . . ie. what made them great and differentiated in the first place.
The challenge is that the Law of the Shiny Object is pervasive, and the signs are always the same. It starts internally, traditional skills and practices are set aside in favour of the Shiny Object. This translates directly to recruitment, financial logic, internal recognition and, even, client consideration; Shiny Object clients will be prioritized at the expense of those who are considered ‘yesterday’s news’. Great news for brands and sectors who are considered aspirational and fundamental to the future of the firm. Not so good for clients (and teams) which are deemed to fall outside this criterion.
Once again, I’m not decrying the existence of a Shiny Object; clients are – after all – also a means for agency professionals to exercise their creativity and realise their ambition. But the pursuit of the same should not mean the neglect of more traditional clients, whose requirements are equally valid. How agencies manage the Shiny Object largely defines their attitude towards client service and career management in general. The best firms are able to exploit the latest thinking, while bringing incumbent clients and staff with them on the journey.
What does this insight mean for clients? If your brand falls within the domain of the current Shiny Object congratulations; you’ll certainly be serviced by the smartest teams and receive attention from the highest levels. But remember – by definition – Shiny Objects are ephemeral; there’s always a new one awaiting around the corner.
So my advice for both traditional and so-called ‘latest thinking’ clients is to ask agencies what they are doing for some of their more prosaic clients; those operating in traditional or conservative sectors, or those with limited resources less applicable to the latest Shiny Object. If the agency can demonstrate enthusiasm, commitment and energy towards such clients, that’s a start. If you meet their servicing teams and they are just as dynamic and inventive as a Shiny Object team, you may be onto something. If not, beware. Even if your brand is operating in the most dynamic of sectors using the latest techniques, there will be days without news, without supplementary budgets or when, finally, the Shiny Object has moved on . . . .
In such moments, using traditional skills such as creative thinking, media knowledge, and raw intellect, that a PR agency really proves its value.