Agency or consultancy?

Interesting post at DummySpit regarding the PR agency in 2020 raised at the PRCA AGM in London.   

One fascinating fact is that the staffing of advertising agency, JWT London, has apparently fallen from 1,000 in the 1970s to 200 today.  This certainly sums up how advertising is no longer the powerful persuasive approach that it once was.  This was the origin of “agency” where commission was gained from buying advertising space rather than being paid retainers or creative fees.

I think the writing is on the wall for other “traditional” techniques – from direct mail to sales promotion.  The public is more aware of being marketed at, more discerning about doing deals and more interested in dialogue than shiny buy-me “bling” communications. 

In a world of direct, one-to-one communication opportunities and increasing “pull” rather than “push” media, will organisations need “agents” between them and their publics?

PR/marketing agencies will probably continue as a commodity – offering a variety of ready-made services, which are not relevant for differentiation, ie simply process or tactically focused. 

Publicists will continue to hussle their wares as agents – with less and less credibility.  If the old linear AIDA model (Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action) isn’t applicable – more sophisticated approaches to communications will be necessary than a word in a favoured journalist’s ear.

Genuine consultancies – that really offer wise counsel – will probably flourish.  But only if organisations are prepared to listen to advice that they may not always like.  If public relations is to be of real value, it must be prepared to speak up and get leaders to change strategic direction.  Organisations need “ethical guardians” who are able to demonstrate the necessity of having strong values and real connections with publics.

Can public relations deliver this?  Or will we simply deliver services demanded by the pay-masters, to declining effect as they seek more and more control in a less and less controllable world?

What is your future in public relations?   As an agent trying to do deals in a world where all participants are more equal and communications savvy?  Or as a consultant – keeping up with trends and emerging issues; and ensuring organisations are listening and adept at continuous change?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

3 thoughts on “Agency or consultancy?”

  1. I’d have thought that part of JWTs reduction was in the switch from inhouse to out house staffing.

    As to the agent vs consultant, I guess what I see happening (and I say this without a shred of up-to-date knowledge) is the use of specialists on demand rather than generalists on tap. It just seems to me the way forward in many businesses

  2. I’m sure there are several factors behind the staff reductions at JWT – but undoubtedly the days of the mega-budget, see it and buy, television advertising campaigns are over.

    I think you are right about specialism being key – you are going to pay more for knowledge and skills. There will probably always be some market for basic “arms and legs” functions, but more and more of those routine tasks will be automated, so not requiring dozens of juniors to deliver.

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