Public Relations Tactics

The changing agency landscape: How to adapt and stay relevant

July 2, 2012

Some say that change is the only constant, and we see examples of it every day in our profession — from the newest social media platforms to advancements in technology to dramatic shifts in how people spend their marketing dollars.

But are agencies changing enough? Are agency leaders taking the time to evaluate their business against the changing marketing landscape and consumer demands? Are we open to redefining our companies and taking the necessary steps to stay relevant?

After a thorough review process, PRSA recently updated the definition of public relations in an effort to more clearly express the current state of the profession, stating:  “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

It is certainly a broad definition, which I believe reflects the shifting demands of PR practice. Perhaps we should redefine other outdated terminology as well.

Take the word “agency” — a term that has grown to prominence in the heyday of  the TV show “Mad Men,” when advertising companies acted as agents, buying services from one party (media) and reselling it for a marked-up profit to another party (their client).  The term relies heavily on transactions.  True, we strategize and negotiate for media and other services, but the key word here is “strategy.”

In public relations, our teams use strategic planning to make decisions about how and where audiences can best see, hear and experience our marketing messages — none of which has to do with a middleman. We also create content for our own platforms now, so our role as intermediary with media has changed significantly.

Others in marketing disciplines agree: New York-based Droga5 describes itself as an “independent advertising network,” Arkansas-based Mitchell Communications defines itself as a “strategic communications firm “and here, at i.d.e.a., we describe ourselves as a “progressive communications company.” If you change your lingo, then you can change the way people think about you.

I recently spoke with a colleague who said, “[The creative marketing process] is not like ‘Mad Men,’” referring to an agency simply telling clients what to do without developing a relationship of collaboration and trust.

To better reflect that relationship, we have also replaced the word “clients” with “brand partners” because we are part of their team, united in working to achieve our goals.

Taking a good look at your company’s service offerings might help you redefine how you describe your business, and it might help you identify the holes.

After attending the annual PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference in May, it was clear that progressive agency leaders are expanding their offerings to meet a broader definition of marketing and communications — and to be more competitive in this evolving industry. Companies whose primary offering was once traditional public relations have evolved to include social media, and are bringing on more diverse talent to meet the demand for video production, SEO, digital management and design.

With the economy still struggling, this shift can be daunting to think about.

But with more than 48,000 public relations, advertising, digital, media and social media businesses in the United Sates, it is imperative to set yourself apart and clearly communicate the value that your team brings to a brand partner. Much like how the definition of our profession has changed, practitioners must also evolve to meet demand.

It can be a matter of bringing on additional staff to fill the gaps, hiring freelancers to supplement your team on certain projects — or even starting over entirely.

My agency recently did this when we launched a new brand — our own. We took our various marketing elements, positioning, strategies and tactics into consideration,  just as we would for a client.

Thinking of taking the leap and starting a new agency? Here are five key things to keep in mind when introducing a new brand:

  1. Treat yourself like a brand partner. When you are launching your own company, it can be easy to cut corners or skip steps.  You would never advise a brand partner to do that, though, so why would you do it to yourself? Hold planning and strategy meetings with the appropriate people, develop a timeline and stick to it, set a budget and track accordingly. Know that this is going to require quite a bit of un-billable time. Don’t beat yourselves up for it.  The end result will be worth it.
  2. Realize that you only have one chance for a first impression. Make sure that you’ve addressed every detail and are truly ready. Has everyone on the team changed their email addresses, Twitter bios and LinkedIn information? Tending to those fine points will make an important statement.
  3. Know that timing is everything. Ask all of the pertinent questions, and double-check your answers. Make sure that everyone in the company has clear expectations of deliverables and timing.
  4. Utilize all hands on deck. This means late nights and early mornings — for everyone. Even if individuals in the company do not have deliverables attached to the launch, then they can still help out by maintaining the rest of the workflow, encouraging the team and even making late-night coffee runs. The most thorough planning will still inevitably lead to last-minute scrambling, tweaks and changes. Be prepared by having everyone on high alert and maintaining a sense of humor. The camaraderie that comes with this type of experience is invaluable.
  5. Inform internal audiences first. If you share the news with the world before you have alerted your internal audiences, then you’ll have a mess on your hands. It is important to identify your key stakeholders and make sure that they learn of the news directly and in advance. This list might include a board of directors, donors, members, brand partners or civic leaders, depending on what business you’re involved in.

As soon as you launch, the work really begins. Have a plan in place to maintain momentum so that you can stay relevant.  After all, everything is bound to change soon enough.

Indra Gardiner
Indra Gardiner is founder and chief relationships officer of i.d.e.a., in San Diego, and is on the executive board for PRSA’s Counselors Academy. Ping her on Twitter @bgindra, or visit


Ric Pratte says:

Thank you Indra for the thought provoking post. Aren't we all at times guilty of the plumber with the leaky pipes. Instructing others to develop and follow through on a complete strategy but not do it ourselves. Sometime I appreciate these little wake up calls! Ric

July 13, 2012

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