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Turbulent times for industry women

If I’d had to describe myself a year ago, I probably would’ve come up with a description along the lines of “feminist lite”. A belief in a Spice Girls-esque version of Girl Power, I suppose, where feisty women hung around in girl gangs, talking about equality while comparing the best brand of sparkly nail polish and badass heels. But something’s happened over the past year to change this.

Almost a year in our (not so new anymore) home

This time last year we were viewing properties and signing the lease for the space that was to become our new home - The Friday Street Club HQ. Starting with a renovation of a blank and empty space, it's grown to be a happy place, full of laughter, always visited by friends (and a good few dogs).

Annual Christmas party with the kids at the Abaphumeleli Home of Safety

Xmas party

As the year drew to an end, it was time for our (now becoming) annual Christmas party for the kids at the Abaphumeleli Home of Safety in Khayelitsha.

The orphanage and home of safety is run by Evelyn Makasi in her own home, housing almost 40 children from between the ages of new born and 18 years old. We arrived with five cars packed to the brim with gifts, party goodies and enough staples (food, household supplies and so on) to last a couple of months, thanks to all the support and donations from friends and supporters. It's been so special seeing the kids grow year by year in such as happy and loved environment. 

We're hiring!

We have a bunch of positions we are looking to fill including:

  • Account Manager or Senior Account Manager - Johannesburg: full-time, freelance or contract
  • Senior Account Manager or Account Director - Cape Town: full time 
  • Account Executive or junior/admin- Cape Town: full time

More details below:

We’re looking for some damn good people to join our team, some based in Johannesburg, some in Cape Town.

We’re looking for all the normal experience - previous experience  in a comms, PR or ad agency; shit hot media relations skills; and a winning way in managing clients. We can cover all the details of what you can do and what you’re good at when we chat in person. 

We’re looking for people that are flexible and multi-talented; people that understand that PR is more than just about farming out a bunch of dull press releases. People that are obsessed with media and the news; that love popular culture; people that are eager to get stuck in to projects that incorporate brand strategy, design, social media, events and anything else we feel like throwing into the mix.

But more importantly is how you fit in with the team and our core values.

We take attention to detail and craftsmanship really seriously. We’re close on being obsessed in fact. We want to do really, really good work, that impresses the hell out of our clients. We think that typos and sloppy grammar are rude. We’re on a mission to change people’s perceptions about PR being the poor cousin of the marketing industry.

We are really passionate about the brands and clients we work with. If we can’t love them, how can we get anyone else to love them.

We like to keep it simple and transparent. We don’t bamboozle people with jargon and sell them impracticable plans.

And we believe in partnership and mutual respect – we think we can be happy at work and have fun along the way. We’re not joking when we say we have no time for big egos, douchebags and psychos. 

If you think you’re that person, send us your details, we’d love to chat.  Drop us a note before the end of November 2016. 

Welcome to new client: SAB Foundation

SAB Foundation

We are excited to have been brought on board by the SAB Foundation as a marketing and communications agency, after a four way pitch process. We will be partnering with Duke to develop a new CI and supporting collateral for the initiative.

The SAB Foundation does amazing work with entrepreneurs, start ups and social innovators, benefitting some of South Africa's most vulnerable. We are so looking forward to helping them tell their stories.

Time for us PRs to take some flack

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Recently I wrote about experiences I’d had in dealing with media and journalists where I felt that, sometimes, their behaviour fell short of expectations. It wouldn’t be fair not to stand up and take the heat in return, so I asked our friends in the media to let rip with their feedback on pet hates they have with dealing with PRs. And let rip they did.

Embarrassingly enough, the same old stuff kept on being mentioned — the same careless approach that PRs have been accused of doing for years on end. How have we not learned yet to sort it out?

So, nothing new here, folks’ let’s have a little chat among ourselves about what we could be doing better.

1. Being careless and sloppy

This was the biggest bugbear from literally everyone I spoke to: inviting people to events or telling them about things in cities that they don’t live in; typos; poor grammar; badly written copy; getting names wrong on emails/invites/name tags — the list goes on.

As one journalist said to me, “My pet hate is when a PR sends a personalised email addressing journo from rival magazine and references wrong publication.”

Come on, people. That’s just rude, if nothing else.

Apart from that, we are pitching and selling ourselves as experts in communication, yet we can’t even get a name spelt correctly? Hmmmm.

2. Not having a clue about media

This is just as unforgivable, in my opinion. Again, we are supposed to be experts on media — what the difference is between different media outlets and platforms; who writes about what; what their audience likes to hear about or read, and so on. Yet, again, the same frustrations are cited by journalists over and again.

Pitching ideas or stories that are completely irrelevant to the media outlet (an example was given of a PR sending local community news to a tech publication). Sending byline pieces where the “author” quotes themselves. Not knowing (or even bothering to research) who they are pitching to or knowing what beat they cover. Or, as cited by the editor of this venerable website, “Have never heard of them. Have email address, hits send”. I had a boss once who was insistent I send out samples of washing powder to fashion bloggers, convinced that they would be gagging to write about this wonder product among their reviews of trends and catwalk outfits. Just embarrassing all around.

So often this is blamed upon the “juniors or interns” who don’t really know what they are doing and are just trying to carry out some vague instructions from a senior. That’s a cop-out and unacceptable, however.

First, whoever is mentoring and managing those juniors needs to take the time to sit with their team, explaining how things work and what is trying to be achieved. Clients are paying the business to care, and to be professionals. Palming it off on juniors is not good enough.

Secondly, everyone who works in PR, at all levels, needs to eat, breath and sleep media. They need to be avid readers and obsessed with media — whether that be a passion for magazines, a hunger for news, or fanatical about blogging. If they can’t be bothered to understand the difference between a community newspaper and a tech blog; or how an editor and a features writer differ, they are probably working in the wrong industry.

3. The “follow-up” phonecall

Dreaded by media worldwide. Dreamt up by some evil account director somewhere, in the aim of further killing any sort of amicable relations between the PR and media contacts.

For those who don’t know what I am talking about, it goes something like this.

Scary account director (or client, maybe) tells junior PR person that they need to get reams of coverage everywhere about whatever dull thing the brand has just done. Poor young PR person dutifully sends out dull press release to every known email address linked to a media outlet. Deathly silence in return. Scary account director (or client) requests results from poor, quivering, young PR person.

“What do you mean, we’re not on the front page of every newspaper?” they demand angrily. “Give them a call personally and make sure they run it!”

Poor, young PR person then calls up every poor journalist on the list (usually who are on deadline/holiday/or in the middle of having an operation in hospital) and meekly asks them “whether they had received the press release and would they be publishing it?”

Here’s the deal, though. The chances are they had received it, along with a hundred other waffling and irrelevant press releases. And they don’t want to do anything with it because it is irrelevant or boring or just because they don’t like the product or the person sending it. The phone call won’t make any difference. If the story or brand is interesting enough, they will run it, and they will make contact if they need any more information.

A recent example came from an editor of a luxury magazine who tells of a poor PR who kept hounding them with mournful phonecalls, pleading with them to run features about some dental floss among their fashion pages

Let’s just make it the year we kill off this “follow-up” phone call, now already?

4. The dreaded “spray-and-pray” approach

This is the unending belief in quantity over quality, and, again, it’s just laziness in not bothering to individually address and develop a bespoke pitch to each media person.

UK blogger, Kat Williams, summarises this perfectly when she talks about her frustration with being spammed:

“These emails are usually flanked with the imposing phrase ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE’ (capitals and bold type are obviously mandatory to demonstrate just how damn important this piece of ‘news’ actually is)….

These days, and for the most part, journalists and bloggers want to publish exclusive content. We want to be the first to break a piece of news or showcase an amazing story idea. By sending out a press release to everyone, you’re offering the exact opposite of what we really want. The most likely outcome is not that it’ll be picked up and written about with enthusiasm, sending thousands of new customers your way, it is more probable that it’ll be relegated to a spam folder… because that’s exactly what a generic pitch sent out to hundreds of media outlets with the vague hope that at least one of them will bite is. Big fat spam.”

5. Not understanding that journalists are (quelle surprise!!) people, too

Strangely enough, most journalists aren’t gagging to spend their free evenings at our crappy brand launches. So, if we’re expecting them to come, we should at least make it pleasant for them. And let’s not ask them to do stuff they don’t feel comfortable with.

Blogger Leigh van den Berg explains this neatly: “I think it’s rude when people expect me to write about an event, but don’t invite me to it. I’m uncomfortable endorsing anything I haven’t been able to try, test, taste, experience myself. I’m all about credibility.

“My reader’s [sic] rely on me for an honest write-up. If you send me something and I don’t like it, I’m not going to feature it. Please don’t assume that, just because you sent me your super-fancy product with a side order of Lindt, I OWE you a rave review.

“And really? You’re inviting me to your hot new bar opening sans partner? Gosh. That sounds like fun. Here’s me standing in the corner all alone like Loser Girl while I pretend to tweet stuff…”

(PS I reckon her piece about PRs is required reading for everyone in the industry and should be taught as compulsory reading material.)

6. The stuff of nightmares

Then there are just some horror stories that stand alone in their awfulness. Both of these were submitted incognito by an ex-journalist who wanted to remain anonymous as they had recently moved over to the dark side themselves, becoming a “Pee-Arr”.

Horror story #1: “A PR agency sending out press information that was incorrect, resulting in one of the parties concerned threatening to sue the publication when it was published”.

Horror story #2: “I was invited to go to a conference [overseas] with a multinational [redacted] vendor and, having the flights home messed up by the PR who booked them, I was almost stranded at [an overseas] airport. I managed to sort it out, but when I tried to contact the PRs during the ordeal to ask for help, the reply I got was ‘the flights should be fine’. There was me, near tears and having no idea how I was getting home, and that was what I got? From my hosts?”

Yikes!

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.

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.

Driving change at global indie agencies

DeathtoStock_London6.jpg

This article first appeared on Marklives.

A turn away from the concept of integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades — to niche, Uber-like agencies; the importance of diversity; and why clients hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake are just some of the topics covered at the 2016 Indie Summit (The Independent Agencies Global Leadership Summit) which I attended last month in London.

A conference and networking event for senior management of independent marketing and communications agencies from around the world, we spent two days exploring a number of opportunities and challenges facing our industry. In no particular order, here are some of the things that I found valuable, reassuring, notable or just plain interesting:

1. As much as agencies change, they stay the same

Several things struck me about how agencies globally are looking these days.

The first was that there seems to be a turn away from the concept of huge, big integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades but masters of none, if you like. To be fair, I am sure if it had been a summit of big networked agencies, this would be different but, certainly among the independents, there was a return to focusing upon niche and specialised expertise.

This was echoed by the clients that were there; a common theme from them was that, despite boundaries between agencies’ work streams and offerings becoming blurred, they were all looking for agencies that had specialised and in-depth knowledge of certain areas, rather than a one-size-fits-all offering.

Another theme was that of increasingly flat structures, and a move away from fixed hierarchies. Over and again, we heard about how agencies are moving to empower (often younger) employees, understanding that allowing them to make decisions, play a valuable role in the organisation and essentially be mini-entrepreneurs in a business ends up benefiting everyone.

Lastly, we heard a lot about diversity. One client spoke about how he would never award business to an agency if he didn’t see a diversity in age, sex, race and background — for how could they ever be able to have an insight and understanding into various clients needs if it were a pitch team of cookie-cutter white males?

Ironically, then, was the makeup of the attendees of the conference: in the 200 or so attendees from agencies around the globe, I would say a conservative estimate was that 70%+ of them were white men…

Looks like it is the world over — not just South Africa — that needs to make some serious changes in this respect.

2. All clients want the same things

It seems clients everywhere want the same things, and the same themes keep coming up when they spoke about what they love and hate about working with agencies.

Delegates kept mentioning the value that good agencies bring: an inspirational culture, optimism, powerful ideas, a wealth of knowledge and bravery. The ability to look at a complexity of client needs and turn it into a simple solution; and the ability to look at a problem from the outside and introduce a new way of looking at things.

Collaboration kept on coming up, and how they were looking for tight relationships where the boundaries between client and agency were indivisible. And, again, diversity, diversity, diversity.

But it’s not all roses; again, the same themes kept coming up when they were asked about what they found challenging about working with agencies. They hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake; agencies spend too much time talking about how great they are, without listening to what the client is saying or needing. Their feelings towards awards are ambivalent, too; although they are a nice to have, they don’t feel that it makes a difference in appointing an agency (in Germany, there is apparently even an industry award for “credential presentations”!).

But the biggest bugbear was the lack of transparency; this was mentioned over and over again — in costs (especially media buying); how the agency delivers on a brief (pretending they have the skills when they need to outsource); and in relationships (such as sucking up to the client in order to win brownie points).

The main takeout I had — and it’s nothing new, let’s be honest — is that a client chooses to work with an agency because of chemistry, much like one would choose a lover. All of them cited the need for diversity in talent, the need for listening, flexibility, and a strength in insights and the ability to transform them into powerful ideas.

3. The trends that are driving us forward

There’s a whole lot happening out there that it helps to be aware of. Here are a few I found interesting:

The growth of Uber-like agencies — where client can draw upon talent in an ad hoc way.

Global agencies are starting to work more like management consultancies that happen to have a specialisation in the field of communications, rather than agencies that work as suppliers.

One of the biggest consumer trends the world over at the moment is the trend of “Me”. This stems from the pressure to fulfil potential, a pressure to be authentic, and the pressure to be “me” (as opposed to one of a “tribe’). This means a couple of things for brands: it means that people are no longer defined by broad groupings of religion or nationality, for example, but rather by micro-definitions, such as what they eat. It also means that they expect more from brands; they want to be acknowledged and followed back from brands on social media, and they like to be rated by brands (such as Uber does).

The “next big thing” (or things) in technology will not be about a development in technology. Those ideas that work are those that start with basic human need and wants, and use technology to benefit lives, and make them cheaper, easier and/or quicker. Consumers don’t know what they want until they are told, but we are able to see what is happening elsewhere and use that technology to innovate.

Facebook is planning on taking over the world. Seriously. And those who think it is ‘just’ a social-media platform are foolish. There are massive plans to be in every part of our lives, based upon being immediate (becoming a messaging app that is part of every conversation — even one-on-ones with retailers and brands); expressive (expect to see much more emojis in the future; it understands how our brains process images thousands of time faster than words); and immersive (along with introducing 360 video, live streaming and virtual reality, its drones plan to bring wifi to, literally, the whole world). Facebook’s advice to brands for the future? Reach people where they are (on mobile and through apps); embrace messaging platforms as a new way for brands to communicate in a one-on-one formats; experiment with expressive storytelling formats (such as Boomerang): and begin to use more immersive formats (such as 360 videos).

4. A few other interesting things and resources I found useful:

  • The Browser (and the Daily Browser emailer): some of the best writing on the internet handpicked and delivered each day in one place.
  • The Future Foundation: global consumer trends, with a free newsletter sharing global trends and insights.
  • TrendWatching: another monthly free newsletter collating global consumer trends.
  • The Staffing and Entertainment Collective: staffing for events and activations in multiple global locations.
  • Interesting read: “Negotiating to win” written by Gary Noesner, the former head of the FBI Hostage Negotiation Unit.

Overall, there were two things that kept on coming through, over and over again.

The first was to listen: listen to clients, make decisions in a calm environment, and create an atmosphere in which input is encouraged.
Positivity: talk positively; treat people positively; and make stuff happen in a positive way.
~~~

PS It’s not just in South Africa that politics are giving business leaders the heebie-jeebies. The world over, there is a demand for a new kind of doing and a new kind of thinking. The danger is that this seems to be leading to the thinking of the past. A frustration with the status quo is resulting in revolt and a general rejection of rationality, and of emotion rejecting facts. Coming from SA, it’s all very easy to get embroiled in the chaos of our own politics — but it’s simultaneously comforting and horrifying to be reminded that agencies and businesses everywhere over are looking with trepidation at how the rise of populist politics will affect them, too. How this rolls out will be interesting, and probably unsettling — even in advance of the Brexit referendum result, agencies at the conference were reporting of deals, network acquisitions and mergers, and client projects being put on hold or cancelled because of uncertainty of what will happen next politically and economically.

A little chat about media bartering

This article first appeared on Marklives.

A big part of PR centres on media relations, and working in partnership with journalists to develop and secure media content on a client’s behalf. The trick is knowing what makes good media content, and providing media and bloggers with information that is compelling, interesting and valuable. We all know cases of PRs spamming media with branded nonsense, and everyone loves to jump on board to ‘name and shame’ some inexperienced PR intern who did a rubbish cut-and-paste job on their pitch to media. But what about when it is the journalists who go rogue?

In recent times I’ve been party to a couple of cases of questionable, behaviour from media contacts we have been working with — not keeping to their side of a deal, plagiarism and pure non-delivery.

There seems to be a common belief that the PRs are the ‘baddies’, hounding poor journalists and drowning them irrelevant crap. And, fair enough, this is often true. But both media and PRs need to have a mutual respect and understanding for this symbiotic relationship — essentially a business agreement — to work.

A PR’s very job exists around the concept of taking their clients’ (often dull and overly branded) information and repurposing so that it is meaningful and newsworthy. It is our responsibility to understand that sending out a press release, about how wonderful a brand thinks it is, is not enough. Hounding people to cover rubbish ‘news’ is not on. And being too lazy to get a journalist’s name right or understand what they write about is just downright rude.

But, likewise, the media has a responsibility to play fair. Below are some real recent examples where I feel that our media friends have not been playing according to the rules of the game:

1. Keep to your side of the deal

The simple truth is both parties have to give in order for both parties to gain. If a brand or a PR consultant has developed a programme or worked up a story, which the media outlet has agreed to cover, it is only fair to deliver upon that promise.

We recently ran a week-long press trip where we took some media guests on a (no exaggeration) money-can’t-buy experience. The trip included staying in places that the public have no access to, a helicopter flip over the Kruger Park, and so on. An expensive exercise for a non-profit initiative that is raising funds to support anti-rhino poaching efforts.

Beforehand we made all media guests aware of the itinerary, agreed in advance that this was of interest to their readers and that they would run a substantial amount of media coverage in return to publicise how the public may get involved and support. After enjoying the trip and all it had to offer, one media guest and their editor have gone, literally, AWOL. No media coverage, nada, and avoiding responding to all emails and follow up communications.

If the content wasn’t of interest or relevant to the readers, shouldn’t the trip have been turned down in advance? And if something came along afterwards that meant they couldn’t run the story (we know that nothing can ever be guaranteed), couldn’t they have given us the heads up and chatted to us about it?

(Side note: fair enough if the experience is rubbish — we understand totally if a journalist comes to an event or experience and has a bad experience, and decides not to write about it.)

2. Don’t plagiarise

At the time of writing, we‘ve had not one, but two, examples where media outlets have copied our press release or content verbatim, without a brand reference or credit.

One example resulted in a full-page feature in a regional newspaper — literally word for word, including extensive details and information that the brand had pulled together comparing prices and stats for travel. Not a peep about the brand’s blog where they had lifted all the content from.

3. Understanding the meaning of a RSVP

We get it. Media types get overwhelmed by millions of invites every day to all sorts of fabulous and glittering occasions. It’s easiest just to confirm attendance to all and then decide on the day which looks the most exciting.

But have a think about what goes behind the invite. If it’s a brand event, the brand probably has spent a big chunk of its budget upon making it as nice as they possibly can. It has spent money upon catering for everyone who said they could come. Last-minute cancellations mean that, not only has the host spent money upon catering for the no-shows, it’s probably too late to fill the space with anyone else.

It happens incredibly often — we’ve even had last-minute cancellations on non-refundable airfare.

Am I being unreasonable? What are your thoughts? And, yes, I know we PRs can be just as unbearable. Next month’s column is about rubbish things we do to irritate journalists. You’re welcome to add your stories. Hit me up on Twitter at @EmmainSA.

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.

Innovation in PR - so what's the deal?

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Last month I wrote about how everyone in the wider advertising and communications industry is innovating — except, it seems, us PR people. I felt there was just too much cookie-cutter, dullsville farming out of crappy media releases for many of us to be considered credible players in the communications industry. Quite rightly, I was then asked: what is the answer? How should we be innovating?

I think the answer will be different for each agency or consultant, depending upon their experience and where their passions lie. But looking at what is happening with bigger agencies overseas, and from what I can see happening here, there are some interesting territories that we, as modern agencies, could (or should) be considering doing to survive the long term.

Diversification in offering (and hiring of talent)

Most PR people are pretty much jack-of-all-trades. We’re copywriters, strategists, media-relations gurus, industry schmoozers and general dog’s bodies all in one. It means, though, we can’t offer much except that. And a decade ago it was OK to send out a bunch of press release and let other people do all the work.

But it’s not good enough now — in a time when everyone is consuming information across a million different platforms in a million different formats. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be taking on briefs to develop videos, emailers, design and visual identify projects and other collateral. And, instead of outsourcing it, we should be looking to hire that talent and build those skills into our offering. Why should that go to the ad people?

Creating specialised business units

So many PR agencies, especially in this country, lump all kinds of PR together. If we’re lucky, there may be some kind of focus or specialisation in corporate vs consumer-facing work, or perhaps a couple of social media managers making up a “digital” team. But, again, I think we’re missing a trick by just focusing upon using our skills in traditional old media relations.

The exciting agencies overseas have taken their skills and developed business units or specialised offerings that focus in on a tight understanding of a niche area. Some have sponsorship arms that focus upon clever management of brand assets and faces of brands; others have research teams that develop clever insights that media campaigns may be built around. Still others have rolled out events teams that do more than simply manage activations that hand out product samples — they are teams that understand that value of news creation, and so their events and stunts are clever enough to make headlines.

Freuds — the UK-based agency made famous initially for its celebrity connections — has become serious players through developing a number of specialised offerings. Alongside talent management, it now offers an industry-leading insights division, as well as being lead agencies in brand and strategy development.

Exposure PR meanwhile, in London, Tokyo and New York, started life as a fashion agency sending out samples and managing fashion shows. If you look at its showreel at the (shit-hot) work it does now — across all categories — there isn’t a PR poppie with a clipboard in sight.

Another London based ‘previously PR-only’ agency, Lewis, now places as much emphasis on its other offerings — including content, research, advertising and marketing — as traditional PR, and is a strong proponent for saying ‘goodbye to the single-practice agency’.

Imagine how much more interesting we could be instead of just drafting those dull old “thought leader” pieces?

Development of new revenue streams

A smart entrepreneur once told me that the secret to success (and millions in the bank, one assumes) was not in creating many businesses, but rather in creating one which had several income streams.

Again, the ad and digital people have worked this out: the big ad agencies have incorporated income-producing business units (such as media strategy and buying teams) into their offerings, while the digital folks are cleverly using their talents to create passive income streams through apps and digital innovation.

And what have we PR people been doing meanwhile? Not much except blithering about whether AVE is a good measurement of success (pro tip: it’s not) and patting ourselves on the back because we learnt how to do a Facebook promoted post.

Personally, I’ve been thinking about some ways in which to develop new income streams which work alongside our PR business (which I’m obviously not going to share in this forum yet — at least until they have been wildly successful and I’m reclining in my private island in the Bahamas). But here are some thought starters-I’ll chuck in for free. Why aren’t PR people being publishers? Could we commercialise a model based around global-asset management for brands — managing the creation, development, licensing and issuing of collateral to news outlets on their behalf? Or what about developing a shit-hot media monitoring, contacts and measurement tool that actually works? The possibilities are endless…

PR agency of the future

Much has been spoken about the “ad agencies of the future”, but not that much about what the PR agency of the future will be. It won’t be much different to that we are seeing now, unless we, as an industry, get out of our little boxes and start to take more risks.

We need to be trying new ways of doing things (even if we fail a couple of times along the way) and we need to become proper consultants who counsel at leadership level, instead of being purely implementers. For me, this means that PR agencies need to radically change from being simply “media-relations specialists” to start looking closely at how they can build their offering to deliver clever insights, creative execution, and innovative offerings and products.

Only then will we still be relevant enough to see in the next couple of decades.

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.