ITL #243 The ruthless application of common sense: how to run a PR company (part two)

6 years, 5 months ago


Further no-nonsense advice from a seasoned agency leader on making a PR business successful. By David Brain.

You must have a point of view: on media, society, community, business, politics, culture, whatever. But for god’s sake, have a point of view

We tell our clients to be thought leaders; we need to take our own medicine.

Obviously it will help to market your agency, but advice from someone who writes, speaks and is in the media spotlight sounds different.  And in most markets, the most famous PR industry spokespeople are often ‘old-school’ or, worse, just publicists or ex hacks.  

Thinking professionals with a point of view need to stand up for all of us.  Otherwise journalists will continue to refer to what we do as ‘spin’ and ‘dark arts’ and we will deserve it.

Nurture your sixth sense, whether paranoid or paranormal

The numbers look great, the clients seem happy, the staff appears to enjoy being here, but you just can’t shake that feeling that something is wrong.  “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people are not out to get you”.

Learn to recognise and read your own instincts. The most successful leaders in this industry are as intuitive as they are rational.

Don’t bury your head in the sand. It’s always best to make the right decision of course, but sometimes you just have to make a decision. Most big decisions about your business are part-hunch.  No one has all the information. Indecision kills as many agencies as wrong decisions.

But when you do make a business mistake; don’t keep making it. Kill it. Remember the pain. Admit you messed up and reverse or find a better plan fast.

70% of women at intake being managed by 70% of men at the top remains an industry disgrace and will hold your business back if it applies to you (you may also burn in hell).

And if your staff don’t include minorities, working class or people NOT from a big city you are also stuffing up.

Size matters

An office of scale can specialise and clients and staff value more specialised knowledge, skills and careers

Strictly speaking, an agency wishing to cover the tech industry now has to cover enterprise, consumer, B2B and start-up clients.  It perhaps has to have a sector capability; health-tech, financial tech or mobile tech. It could be asked for subject specialism; say ‘big data’ or the ‘gig economy’.  And a multi-stakeholder client programme may of course need PA or crisis capabilities as well as analyst or financial media relations.  

That consumer brand campaign should these days have planning (needing a planner), a great idea (needing a Creative Director) and then content creation, media relations and paid media outreach (that could be 12 people).  

This is happening on big clients in the big PR centres.  We now have individual PR agency offices of 1000+ people.  400+ is no longer unusual.  More and more clients are experiencing this level of specialist capability.  

Assuming the culture that sits between all these specialists is half decent, then the offer becomes highly effective and highly valued by the client.  If big agencies use their scale properly, they should have a better, specialized offer.  If big agencies use their scale properly, they should be able to offer a greater variety of careers and training and keep their better people longer and attract the best talent.  

Happily for small agencies, very few big agencies are using their scale properly.  Watch this space.

Growth is not an excuse

Young agencies grow fast.  You go from one to six employees in year one and you have 600% growth. But rapid growth does not invalidate all the other normal rules of creating a great agency. In your rush to handle growth, don’t build an ugly agency.

Not understanding Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and basic ‘paid’ is embarrassing. Most of what you need to know is published by these companies.  You just need to take the time to learn.  Or if not you, ensure someone in your agency does.

Being in PR and not having a view on how mainstream media, social, paid and search work together is weird. If you can’t come up with your own, steal one.

Hopefully you do.  If you don’t, then plagiarise and apply and develop your own.  Most of the big agencies, as well as the better smaller ones, helpfully publish much of their approach or ‘methodology’ online.  

Bloggers and high-profile PR folk do as well. Personally I don’t think you can claim to be in PR these days unless you can help clients manage their brand or reputation across these channels effectively.

And on the sixth month of every year…

Thou shalt read, digest and amend thine ways in accordance with the findings of our Lady Mary of Meeker

And then you must keep up because this stuff changes fast.  Mary is great for the overview but there are many others.  Oh….and your clients and smarter employees are reading these studies by the way:

And as communications has moved online, so the tools to manage it have too.  The good news is most of this stuff is cheap to subscribe to. With it you can do things like:

  • Automate repetitive tasks
  • Manage projects
  • Map networks and influencers
  • Manage your SEO and keyword reporting
  • See what your target audience are interested in in your category
  • Build online newsrooms
  • Test your digital content
  • Create simple infographics
  • Manage your paid campaigns
  • Curate your clients’ digital content
  • Produce and share social media dashboards

There are many helpful lists of these things out there. Assign someone to be in charge of this and train your people.  Again, smart employees and clients already expect this.

If your office does not have access at editorial level, you’re publicists (which might be fine too). The old skill is still the key skill.

Fake news is a real and present danger for the PR industry. To date of course, mainstream media have been in the spotlight.  That could change if agencies and clients are not careful and ethical.  Again there is a lot out there to help guide you in creating training and guidelines for your people.  My strong suggestion is every agency should run training sessions on this.

Moore’s Law applies to research tools

PR budgets are no longer too small to research consumers or even opinion formers and influencers.  Online tools abound to help supplement the tried and trusted telephone call to your own network.  Here are some lists:

Some of this stuff is actually free; most is now very reasonably priced.  And don’t forget all the data available from the big social platforms for free.

If your client or pitch strategy is not based on an audience insight at least partly gleaned from empirical research, then check your pension contributions are up to date.

Let’s talk about the ‘C’ word

In most markets, the ‘fees’ paid to ‘creative’ agencies by CMOs are about 14 times those paid to the entire PR industry.

And yet CMOs are now more interested in our approach than they ever have been because traditional paid channels are collapsing and the power of indirect communications and influencers is more recognised and valued than ever.

But those PR agencies that want to access these fees beyond our traditional tactical role of amplification and brand issues management need to appreciate how to manage the creative process better than we have in the past.

PR agencies tend to be service focused.  The best creative agencies are idea focused. There is a big difference. Creativity and big ideas for brands have to be built on great planning which provides great insights through research and analysis. That’s a big commitment in expensive people right there.

And then you need professional ideas people.  You might get lucky with amateurs or part timers every now and again, but the generation of ideas is done better and more consistently by a person for whom that is their passion and their main job.

And recruiting and managing creative talent is an essay in and of itself.

Sell products not just services

The retainer fee is a blessing and a curse. But as we offer more and more specialised services like paid, SEO, planning and creative on top of the old favourites like crisis and audits, you need to ‘productise them’ or clients will try and wrap it in to the base fee.

* Define the problem you are addressing

* Describe the process you will address it with and if necessary the clients you have done this for before

* Detail the outputs the client will receive

* Price it

* Don’t start doing it until they agree to pay for it

* Evaluate

Review your retainer contracts to ensure they do not include ruinous catchall scope-of-work descriptions that preclude you selling specific products.

Client conflict is a given; how it’s handled is your choice

Legal firms have many clients in the same category and this is seen as specialism and is therefore a benefit.  Agencies have two clients in the same sector and it is conflict and people start screaming and calling their lawyers. As you get bigger the problem gets bigger and more constraining.  I only have two tips; radical transparency and recognise you can’t win them all and sometimes you just have to walk away from business.

If you are responsible for 70 people or more, do only as much fee paying work as keeps you current, relevant and credible. Any more is vanity or self-delusion or both.

This has never been a fashionable view. Client work is where we all started and from where we believe we get our authority and, often, satisfaction.  But humans can’t scale. And once your business does, you need to lead the business more than do fee paying work with clients.  Don’t lose touch with clients, don’t stop selling, don’t stop managing the most important client relationships, but don’t be the main fee earner. And if you can’t let go of this, then hire a CEO.

Don’t be boring, and share bad news on a Monday  

My old boss Richard Edelman believed we all had to ‘live in colour’. By that he meant that we would be better consultants and client people if we were interesting and to be interesting, we had to participate in sport, NGOs, culture, media, society whatever.  

We had to have an outside life, because if we succumbed to working all the daylight hours in the office and then going straight home we would become boring and clients would not want to work with us and staff would not want to work for us.

When I worked for Tim Sutton of Weber Shandwick, he always schooled us that burdening him with bad news at the weekend, when his ability to do anything about it was limited and the stress it would cause is maximised, was career limiting.  “Tell me bad news on a Monday because Mondays are rubbish anyway so you are not spoiling anything and I can deal with it because I am in work mode”.  

Even in today’s 24/7 work environment, you don’t need to send emails at 2am or cc the entire office on your issue (that enormous crisis apart of course).  If you do, you are spreading unnecessary stress amongst your colleagues and just signalling that you are a panic merchant and probably not a great person to have in an already stressful enough business.

Part one of this essay appeared last week.

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The Author

David Brain

David Brain was CEO & President Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa at Edelman from January 2011 to May 2017. Prior to that he was Edelman’s CEO & President EMEA from 2003. He has also served as Joint CEO of Weber Shandwick in the UK, CEO at BSMG Worldwide and Manging Director at Burson-Marsteller.

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