For the last two years, the PRCA, the UK’s professional body for the PR industry, has run a project looking at what the PR agency of the future might look like. 

We’ve debated topics around revenue models, structures, specialisms and employee motivation and, while looking to the future is always a fascinating pursuit, this year we decided to look a bit closer to home and investigate and celebrate examples of innovation that are already happening within the industry.

Today, we’ve released a series of case studies looking at five UK PR agencies that have already taken steps to innovate. We hope they will prove to be a source of inspiration to agencies looking to futureproof themselves.

Here are five key themes that run throughout the case studies and, of course, the case studies themselves.

1. Put the client first

The need for change in the PR industry, as in so many other industries, is driven by digital. And, more specifically, by the lowering of barriers to entry and the increased importance of integration. 

It has never been easier for PR professionals to run, for example, paid campaigns or direct-to-consumer communications.

When combined with a need to integrate, the race to change and broaden expertise is understandable and natural. But there is a danger here too. Many of the agencies we spoke to talked about the importance of looking at each client brief in isolation and really taking a step back and thinking about what was the best strategy and channels to deliver value.

So, communication agencies are quickly realising that media relations isn’t necessarily the answer to every communication brief and that opens up the need to have other weapons in the arsenal.

Things with Wings has been built around exactly this premise of putting the client at the heart of the business as Lee Nugent and Chris Buckley explain.

2. Recognise the need to specialise

Which all leads us nicely onto the need to specialise. The generalist versus specialist debate is one that rages throughout the PR industry.

Recent research looking at digital trends within the PR industry found an increase in in-house teams looking to take on community management and the execution of social media.

Across the board, there was a big rise in specialist social media teams overseeing Facebook (36%), Twitter (33%), blogs (18%), and content (28%), pushing past agencies and communications departments.

This leaves questions over where agencies can really add value. There was a 16% growth in demand for online reputation management services from PR agencies over last 12 months (9% to 25%) and elsewhere, agency support in terms of content creation, creativity and strategy was flagged by in-house respondents.

All this requires new skillsets and training – an issue that again is important for our industry to focus on. The same research found that, worryingly, 70% of respondents said the proportion of digital training they receive is small to moderate.

At a time when upskilling employees must be at the top of any agency’s priority list, it seems too little is being done to really ensure that digital education is adequate.

Golin is an agency that has tackled this head on by transforming the structure of the agency to ensure it can offer everything from ATL TV campaigns through to web and app development. Matt Neale explains all in the following video.

3. Take everyone on the journey

Change isn’t easy, especially in agencies that have looked very similar for years. These case studies demonstrate the importance of strong leadership but also engaging employees so they are seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

We also saw varying degrees of change. Some agencies have ripped up the rulebook and turned things on their heads, others have accommodated a slower rate of change but have nevertheless innovated and evolved.

At a time when there are no right or wrong answers to this challenge, it is important that we realise there are plenty of different potential routes that can be taken.

And one option is merging with other agencies (and indeed, for smaller agencies, the importance of forming strong partnerships). Threepipe’s Jim Hawker and Laura Coleman talk about how they merged with a digital agency to radically change their agency offering.

4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

One of the concerns that many have voiced about PR agency change is that, by becoming ‘all things to all people’ we lose the very essence that makes us stand out and differentiates us from other types of marketing agencies (who, incidentally, are all asking exactly the same sorts of questions).

We need to remember that many clients are still just looking for strong media or influencer relationship skills. But we should also think about the reason why, I believe, PR agencies and our traditional approach to storytelling, is more relevant than ever in the modern communication world in which we now live.

Octopus is a great example of an agency that has restructured around client need while retaining everything that was great about traditional agencies.

5. People remain our greatest asset

In a similar vein, I’ve always believed that PR agencies are only as good as the people they have working for them.

As more and more skills are needed and demands increase, getting the best people into the business and retaining them becomes the single biggest challenge. Innovation in this area can therefore be a powerful tool – a way to differentiate your agency offering, not to clients, but to potential and existing employees.

With a tech fund and personal project time, Battenhall is a brand new agency that has put its people right at the heart of what it is doing.

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