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PR agencies must acknowledge common ground to enhance our professional standing

PR agency people are a strange breed – and I say that as a longstanding member of that tribe myself.

We are full of contradictions: Fiercely competitive with one another, and with rival agencies, but at the same time extremely fickle, very often willing to jump ship to one of those rivals for a fancy new title, a salary bump, or some other perceived advancement.

But throw a few folk from different agencies together in a bar, and with enough (ahem) lubrication we soon discover that our agencies aren’t so different, after all. We all struggle with the same pressures and challenges – attracting and retaining good staff, adapting to a rapidly and continually changing media landscape, maintaining profitability when clients are expected to do more with less… not to mention the egos, the personalities, the petty politics. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying: “Same sh*t, different logo”.

That is not to say agencies do not cultivate distinct cultures, value propositions and services – they do. But let’s face it: There is much more that unites us than divides us.

Giving it all away

One common gripe in the agency world is the expectation that we should pitch for free. And it’s true, an awful lot of work goes into every new business pitch. Tens of thousands in staff hours, as well as hard costs, and an expectation that we should effectively give away our strategic thinking and our best creative ideas for free, in the hope that we will be appointed following an often long and torturous pitch process.  

Personally, I think that’s just the cost of doing business. You have to speculate to accumulate, and there are plenty of other industries where much more is invested in speculative sales pitches.

But what I do find bizarre is that once we have been hired, we often continue to give away our most valuable strategic thinking – voluntarily.

I’m talking about measurement and evaluation.

Recognizing the value of our efforts

I’m making a generalization here, but for the most part, measurement and evaluation is not something we do well in the PR profession.

For years I’ve seen “measurement and evaluation” lumped in with “account management” during the budgeting process, and that part of the budget squeezed to a minimum because we want to devote as much of the budget as possible to execution. And then the “measurement” actually ends up being little more than “reporting”, invariably left to an intern or junior account executive to do little more than count clippings and calculate “total reach” in some backward-looking report that we call an evaluation, but actually isn’t.

Sound familiar?

Why are so many of us so afraid to budget for, and undertake real evaluation, that analyses outcomes and impacts, and not merely outputs? That becomes the basis for informing future strategies instead of simply being a look back at recent history? That acknowledges what has not worked, as well as what has, so that we can make intelligent decisions and continually improve?

PR: The poor relation

There are probably as many reasons for this as there are agencies, but it mostly boils down to a few key factors:

Firstly, we (and our clients) are prisoners of our own experience – we’ve always done things in a certain way, so there is a resistance to change.

Secondly, there is a skills question. When I and my peers came up through the profession, the importance of writing was drummed into us above all else. And we continue to recruit in our own image, hiring wordsmiths when we also need data scientists (as well as coders, film-makers, graphic designers…).

And then there’s the question of budget, which is a circular one: PR budgets are often modest, so we don’t set aside budget to measure and evaluate, and therefore we can’t prove whether what we did worked or not, so budgets remain small… and so it goes on. And PR remains the poor relation of the marketing mix.

It’s time to break that cycle.

Common Ground

It’s time to acknowledge that in the area of measurement and evaluation, perhaps more than any other, we have much in common, and much to learn from each other, if we could but check our egos and put aside those rivalries.

I am proud to be spearheading ‘Common Ground’, a new initiative by AMEC(The Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication) to further the adoption of best practice measurement and evaluation within the PR agency sector.

How are we going to achieve that? By creating a forum through which agency people can speak to, and learn from each other, in a non-competitive environment.

Radical? Maybe. Bonkers? I think not. No, I firmly believe we all have something to learn from each other. There are so many issues common to all agencies: How to persuade clients (especially those with modest resources) to invest in measurement and evaluation? How much should that investment be? Is there a minimum?

How do you bring about a change of culture within your agency, to embrace the value and importance of robust measurement and evaluation? In particular, how do evaluation advocates within agencies persuade colleagues to ‘sacrifice’ a proportion of a client’s fee to allocate to measurement and evaluation? And how much should that be, especially for smaller clients?

How can we educate clients and move them away from old-fashioned models and metrics?

How do you measure effectively for clients on a shoestring budget?

How do you build an in-house measurement or insights practice from the ground up?

Which measurement and evaluation companies are best for what sort of client? Which tools are best used for which metrics?

How can we stop measurement being backward-looking, and make evaluation a forward-looking planning tool, prescriptive rather than descriptive?

Time to show our hand

Why should agencies give away their ‘secret sauce’ to their competitors? News flash: There is no secret sauce.

Different agencies certainly approach measurement and evaluation in slightly different ways, but the principles are the same. Best practice exists - and is freely available on the AMEC website for any agency that wants to adopt it.

And if you don’t believe me, ask my peers at Fleishman-Hillard, Golin, H+K, Ketchum, Mischief, The RED Consultancy… they are all in on the Common Ground initiative, and want to share their knowledge, their skills and their experience for the benefit of the whole profession.

Through AMEC, we will be organizing events and sharing content in the coming months, in London, New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Dubai and elsewhere. For details check the AMEC website or drop me an email – we’d love to have you involved.

It’s time to come together to raise the standard of measurement and evaluation throughout the PR agency world. Let’s find that common ground, and build upon it.

If you would like to get involved in the AMEC Agency Group’s Common Ground initiative, please email AMEC Agency Group chair, Jon Meakin, or AMEC managing director, Johna Burke