The Traditional PR Agency Model is Dying, and Consultant Culture May Be Next Direction

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Throughout my career, I’ve learned a great deal about the business of traditional agency PR. Miss program demands and you’re out. Make program demands and you’re rewarded with more work, a bigger team, the next new business pitch and the pressure to help keep the agency afloat. Darwin would smile at the whole mess—only the strong surviving and thriving.

This was a great model during my time with big agencies because I seemed to remain on the favorable side of Darwin’s balance, but one thing still didn’t make sense. In a perpetual “up or out” environment, why did we keep moving the talent who survived away from our clients and into the bureaucracy of management? Didn’t these rock stars just prove they were the best for their clients? By now you know what caused this evolutionary faux pas: the evil corporate ladder.

There is no way to keep top talent in an agency without paying them handsomely. And with heavy big-business overheads, stellar seasoned employees inevitably have to move off of client teams or else sponge finite budgets. The supposed fix? Let executives sell clients on their skills and load the program with mostly fresh graduates who have yet to make their green PR mistakes. It’s the classic agency model, you say, but is it really the best for paying clients?

There’s a burgeoning trend in client service that may soon give traditional agencies a run for their money: consultant culture. For a variety of reasons, experienced staffers are beginning to reject the idea great PR has to be done the big agency way—looking down from the top of the ladder. In my opinion, this shift in mindset a good thing. Independent PR consultants are on the rise; some working alone, others banding together to market their unique expertise to clients who simply want access to great talent at a reasonable price. By 2020, more than 40 percent of the workforce will be independently employed and the PR industry is not immune.

Consultancy offers a business proposition that appeals to both sides:

  • Clients affordably retain access to talent they’re priced away from at a traditional agency
  • Seasoned employees can continue providing the expertise they’ve refined over years, without juggling agency, overhead and staff management issues
  • Consulting offers the flexibility more employees are demanding in their careers, whether it’s parents who need more time at home with their families or Millennials who wish to redefine standard business hours

This is a notion I pursued five years ago and have seen pay off in dividends. In 2010, I started Approach PR & Marketing—a virtual agency made up of ex-agency independent PR consultants situated all over the country. I watched the recession unfold and saw my clients walk away, as they could no longer afford their expensive teams. Around the same period, I noticed an increase in industry peers breaking free of their “golden handcuffs” to go back to their PR roots as consultants.

Essentially, I launched a new type of agency model: experienced professionals coming together to staff accounts of all sizes. Our consultants are located all over the country, working from home offices or shared workspaces. Our team structure borrows the effective portion of the agency model—client-driven teams that combine the skills and experience needed—we just cut out the ineffective portion.

Our solution—keep the best talent working on client work. In a big agency, they sell you the talents and then serve up green account staff to manage most of the day-to-day affairs. At Approach, instead of your business being in the hands of a 20-something account executive, we sell you, our talent, and serve it as well. It’s as easy as removing those heavy big-business overheads, creating headspace to competitively compensate the top talent for their remarkable skill, and still pass savings to the client.

To paraphrase the late Steve Jobs: Everything around you was someone else’s idea, feel free to reject the ideas you don’t like. We have rejected the idea succeeding in PR means taking over a corner office and never touching another client campaign.

The agency world is all about the client, make no mistake about it. All too often in big agencies it’s about corporate policy and other overhead functions that cost clients a fortune. At the end of the day, we’re all here to achieve the client’s objective and make them money.

In short, the consultant-led team’s job is to keep the client happy, not to be bogged down by the stressors of upper management, posturing for brass promotions and agency profitability. This shift is good news for consultants, great news for our clients, and bad news for the agency model.