At the PRSA Counselors Academy fall conference in Nashville in September, founders and leaders of small- and medium-sized agencies heard about and shared best practices, discussed their experience as entrepreneurs, and broke bread.
Counselors Academy is always invigorating and an opportunity for fellowship. As a three-time supporter of the event, I find it an excellent window into what’s on the minds of agency leaders and where they are headed.
While the pandemic was a backdrop to the conference, it marked a significant step in the process of moving beyond COVID, with the focus being on a brighter future.
Here are a few of my takeaways for both client and agency communicators:
For those who got together there was a real sense of pleasure in re-connecting in person with friends and colleagues. It was a reminder that, having fallen off the in-person meeting bicycle, personal interaction is invaluable.
While the sessions are always important and well attended, Counselors is about the interactions between the programs and dine-around events where people meet and socialize. Zoom meetings can replace a lot, but not the spontaneity of conversations on the sidelines where learning and business takes place.
What I heard on the sidelines of the conference was consistent with feedback in other CEO groups: If COVID-19 was a positive for a firm, it was most likely because the agency’s business was focused in sectors where it created a greater need for the agency’s services.
For those negatively impacted, it had very little to do with them. Although some companies were able to successfully pivot, the takeaway is that whether business grew or declined it wasn’t about talent or expertise, but had everything to do with the broader economic shifts that were driven by the pandemic.
In a recovering economy, however, as the tide rises, it’s clear that the best swimmers are likely to grow the fastest. PRSA Counselors Academy members were clearly seeing new business opportunities.
In every conversation I had, even when agency leaders said they were generalists, it was followed with, “But we are experts in x, y, z industry,” underscoring the importance to clients of agencies having unique and specific capabilities.
One discussion served as a reminder of the value of very, very specific expertise. One agency leader shared a story that deep knowledge of a potential clients’ general industry sector was not enough to get them hired. The agency didn’t make the final cut when up against other firms with expertise in a narrow sub-sector of the industry - the basis of being considered for the assignment. Specific industry and local market expertise – key search categories in the CommunicationsMatch search platform – are a powerful combination for smaller agencies, combined with creative approaches to reaching client audiences.
Increasing diversity is very much a priority for smaller agencies, just as it is for the largest firms in the industry. The conference’s organizing committee built in five sessions targeting DE&I, recognizing that this is both on the minds of clients and, long term, a key to communicating with all audiences.
The recognition that there is significant work ahead was not lost on attendees, nor was the business incentive for greater diversity. Targeting a broader range of universities in recruiting, incorporating diversity as a dimension of hiring decisions, and ultimately weeding out people who may be barriers to the inclusion of diverse professionals were all topics of discussion.
One of the sessions that drew significant attention and engagement was with Elizabeth Edwards, founder & CEO of Engagement Science Lab and Volume PR, and her discussion of behavioral communications. The rise of interest in behavioral science and drivers of what we do is a “back to the future” moment for public relations. The earliest experts in the industry drew from psychology with the goal of behavioral change. Once more there’s a wave of interest in the industry in understanding and leveraging behavioral insights that’s gaining steam.
This is a topic I’ve been writing about for several years now in the context of our own behavior as communications leaders. Read Tunnels & Funnels: Why we make bad decisions and how we can make better ones and Mask Resistance Rises: A behavioral Lesson.
Another excellent and well-attended discussion was CEO of PredictiveROI Stephen Woessner’s panel on selling with authority. Woessner outlined a systematic approach to marketing for filling new business pipelines based on having a specific niche, authoritative selling, and developing unique content.
The presentation was a great reminder of the importance of a disciplined process to achieving communications goals. While this sounds straightforward, great execution is always a challenge. It depends on people, capacity, and a well-honed efficient process – something easier said than done.
Having worn corporate and agency hats, a personal takeaway was the way in which the agency and corporate communications worlds all too often function in separate orbits. It's clear to me that client versus agency power dynamics get in the way of building seamless relationships founded on mutual respect and complementary expertise, which are essential to achieving business goals.
As a CEO who manages agency relationships and my own firm’s communications, I see, perhaps more than most, the opportunities for bridges and ways in which we can all learn from each other. As I saw on a poster in the London Underground some time ago, “Life is too short to learn from your mistakes. Learn from others.” In the communications and marketing world, if we’re open-minded enough to look for it, there’s real value to be derived from sharing experience not only in silos, but across them.
Simon Erskine Locke is CEO of communications agency and professional search and services platform, CommunicationsMatch™, which powers PRSA's Find a Firm agency, professional and service provider search and hiring tools. Search for Agencies, Professionals & Service Providers. Create a profile on CommunicationsMatch.