When a creative agency must PR itself

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I’ve been involved with several advertising and creative agencies which have asked me to advise them on “PRing” themselves and raising their profiles. An odd thing, when you think of it: creative agencies that specialise in communications asking for help, essentially, to communicate. But not so odd when we think that many agencies — ad, design — are so specialised in what they do, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees and translate that into profile-building for themselves. After all, we don’t often (if ever?) see an ad agency running an ad about itself.

A few years ago, as with most of the other industries, media and marketing had numerous print publications, websites, local awards and recognition initiatives and other media platforms in which to showcase themselves. We had seemingly endless opportunities to profile people, share case studies and brag about successes. But, bit by bit, these have fallen away, and there just a handful of outlets and places left dedicated to showcasing and talking about the marketing industry (including this respected leading website *wink wink*).

So, agencies need to think harder and smarter than just sending out press releases and placing “thought-leadership pieces” if they want to grow their reputation (although I would argue this stands for brands and businesses in any industry these days). As daunting as this sounds, growing the profile of a creative agency doesn’t need to be too complicated, and there are a few basics that any creative agency may do first before thinking they have to spend their hard-earned margins upon hiring people to run their media relations or PR campaign:

1. Develop a personality

We always tell brands that they need to understand their personalities and ensure that this comes through in everything they do, and this is the same for agencies. So many agencies have conflicting or confusing personalities — the exco team talks one language while juniors speak another.

An agency needs to work out what its personality is, and weave that through everything it does, whether that be wacky and eccentric, or authoritative and corporate. This, after all, is what makes clients want to work with an agency, and the best talent to work for it.

Part of this is developing a face for the business that represents this. Think of many of the agencies that you admire and respect; I’d place money on them having a senior person who is the face of the agency that brings this personality to life.

2. Sort your social platforms out

It sounds obvious but it constantly surprises me how many local agencies have rubbish social media platforms; it’s the first place that so many potential staff members or clients look at. It’s the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to share news, showcase work and paint a picture of the culture and people who make up the business. Along with this, any agency that professes to be knowledgeable about social media and digital comms (which all have to be, I would argue), falls short when their own channels are poor.

And yet I see so many dire attempts: either outdated and old news, or boring bragging. The mistake is often that businesses feel that they need to be on every single platform, and keeping them all updated and interesting becomes, literally, a full-time job. Rather choose one or two and do them well. And don’t feel that they need to be over-thought or crafted — this is the one place where the creative teams may go wild and create the kind of crazy content that client would never sign off.

3. Understand that every touch point is important in growing your reputation

As with any brand, telling people about how wonderful you are isn’t as effective as the experience they have with you themselves. So why is the focus always on media stories and press releases?

More important, I believe, is ensuring that every single time someone —current or potential client, employee, supplier and everyone else — comes into contact with that agency, they need to have a positive and pleasant experience with it.

I know of agencies which profess to be creative hotshops, yet entering their offices is like entering a morgue in a bad 1960’s hospital drama. I know of other agencies which profess to be open and friendly, and yet they treat their suppliers horribly. And I know of still others that promote their open and friendly culture, and yet which are also known for keeping their staff in the dark of major agency changes and for being stingy with salaries and career development.

The problem with these is that they are so focused upon landing the next big client and making the next buck that they don’t realise that all these people who they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis are forming — and sharing — opinions about the business. It’s no use sending out a press release saying that a business is wonderful and successful, when staff is telling everyone over a beer about their Stalinist work processes.

4. Handle the challenges, not just the successes, well

A good business is one that works well not only in times of success but in weathering bad times, too.

A decade or so ago, PnP was hit with a crisis when a nutter threatened to have poisoned a number of unknown products in store, leading to thousands of products having to be recalled. This could have led to panic and a loss of confidence in the brand, but the communications team jumped quickly into action and executed a well thought-out and thorough plan which kept everyone updated on what it was doing to take responsibly and fix the issue. The result? That year the retail brand was named “Most Trusted Brand” in South Africa.

The same goes for agencies. It’s all very well and easy to go around shouting about how many Loeries have been scooped up. Yet how do you go about acting in times of trouble? Do you take responsibility and fix a problem? Do you blame it on the juniors? Do you tell staff what is happening to their jobs and involve them in decision-making?

I think this is the mark of a great and long-lasting agency brand. And I think it says more about them than a cabinet full of awards trophies.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.