Public relations more than other marketing professions has remained one centered around people. In some cases ‘stars’, in most ‘infantry’; all of whom make up the daily routine of agency life. This (unspoken) distinction encapsulates the essence of what I call ‘the client service paradox’.
‘Stars’ possess talent that is innate – a beautiful turn of phrase, unrivalled contacts, deep relationships, a spirit of creativity, clarity of thought and purpose, rigour and determination to win, high-octane empathy across all audiences from clients and colleagues to media and influencers . . . . All, of course, embedded within a character of immutable integrity and discretion.
Stars are natural seducers. And PR agency owners and leaders are their prey of choice. You see, stars are what differentiate PR agencies; they are who clients turn to in times of crisis or when the stake are high; their charisma brings in the prestigious accounts; their credibility secures approvals for the more creative campaigns. I see you are already seduced!
Make no mistake, agencies need stars; the more the better. Just ask any client . . .
But – trust me – they won’t help your agency to scale. They won’t ensure a repeatable and distinct client experience. They won’t help you to decrease your cost of doing business and make you more profitable. They won’t help your agency to manage risk (in terms of margin erosion or staff attrition); neither will they codify best practice so that it can be replicated – or, at least, imitated – by 10s, 100s, 1,000s of other staff.
In fact, they’ll tend to do precisely the opposite. Let me explain.
Agency stars are not merely the source of ideas and actions but protagonists in the same. This is great at first; stars generate business, solve problems and assume personal responsibility for the same. They are driven by excellence, by curiosity, by prestige . . . all of which benefits the agency.
But at a certain point this protagonism becomes a vice; agencies cannot truly scale through the exclusive delivery of excellence. Sorry, it’s simply not a viable business model. In reality, agencies scale through rigour, operational efficacy and professionalism; all punctuated by moments of genius.
And this is where a dependency on select professional stars can become a barrier to growth. It takes a particular type of professional to be inspired by other people’s ideas, to take the time and effort to codify ‘best’ practice for hundreds of other (less inspired) professionals to deliver in a manner that’s at least ‘good’ (without necessarily being ‘inspired’). And such qualities are rarely to be found in stars.
Stars would always reject the ‘good’ in favour of the ‘excellent’; stars will always try to resolve the client’s problem or acquiesce to a client request irrespective of agency realities of P&L, margins, agency strategy etc.
For agencies to scale, leaders need to be looking at – not just client exigencies – but agency ones: differentiation, risk, dependencies. Including those represented their own staff.
And this leads us to the real paradox. Clients adore agency stars. They love their creativity, they leverage their contacts; they are inspired by their personal commitment and engagement. In essence, they become dependent on them. Great for the agency, until it realizes that that dependency is replicated – the agency also becomes wholly dependent on the star. And for the reasons outlined above, it’s a model that cannot scale.
In fact, it can also represent a risk; I have working in the profession for nearly 30 years. I can cite countless examples of teams, departments and entire agencies held hostage to a select group of stars, whose objectives become diametrically opposed to those of the firm. I’ve seen them all (first or second hand): the ‘lion tamer’ (who managers the most truculent clients), the ‘horse whisperer’ (uniquely able to convince the editor in chief), the ‘big game hunter’ (champion of new business), the ‘scribe’ (the fastest copywriter in the west) etc . . . .
It is possible to counter the client service paradox, if we understand one key aspect – ‘bespokism’. This is the idea that clients believe they are receiving service that is unique and exclusive to them. This sentiment creates tremendous appreciation and value; it builds loyalty and can massively reduce the effects of client attrition. However, as we’ve seen, ‘bespokism’ runs counter to the principles of scale based on a set of repeatable processes to replicate the best (or, at least ‘good’) elements of client service.
Process and bespokism can co-exist; in fact, this complementarity is crucial is agencies are to truly scale. Scalable process – repeatable actions – should ideally remain invisible to the client. Clients are indifferent to the mechanics of deriving insights, of spotting risk and opportunity, or of fully exploiting campaigns. They are interested in outcomes; the overall experience and the creation of value.
To this end, the secret is to rigorously enforce process, but never to reveal the same to the client; in effect, present repeatable process as ‘bespoke’. This combination can prove invaluable. I like to compare it to the difference between a waiter at a restaurant who takes the trouble remember your birthday and greets you accordingly, and one who simply repeats the refrain ‘Would you like fries with that?’. Irrespective of the quality of the respective cuisines, both actions are most likely codified in the staff training manual; the former, however, appears to be spontaneous. Here is where the creation of value lies.
In PR terms, it can be the difference between sending a simple coverage report, and accompanying the latter with some explanation, insights or and recommendations.
And here is where the stars – those invaluable but fatal mavericks – can really play a role, to ‘bespoke-ise’ the process. To make it appear personalized, unique and spontaneous. Real stars are brilliant at this. That’s why clients adore them.
There is no substitute for genius – agency stars will always remain invaluable – but agencies that scale rely on ‘good’ campaigns as much as ‘brilliant’ ones. The process is essential, but so are stars.
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