Sector Sync: “Collaboration is Key”

After looking at the relationship between technology/digital agencies and their professional service clients and dissecting the briefing process between the two sectors, Creative Kitchen and Professional Liverpool rounded off the first series of Sector Sync events by looking at a more established relationship.

PR and marketing have been key functions for professional service businesses for many years. However, the disruptive nature of digital technology, decline of the traditional media and the dawn of an era of complete transparency has forced a significant shift from traditional tactics and agency models.

Has this shift meant that PR and Marketing agencies have had to review and rethink their relationships with professional service clients? This was the question Gavin Sherratt, host and MD of Mashbo, posed to Sector Sync’s expert panel, Kate Cox, MD of deWinter Agency, Sara Wilde McKeown, MD of Influential and Emma Carey, Managing Partner at MSB Solicitors.

Collaboration Is Key

The response was a resounding yes. The fragmentation of the media and emergence of new disciplines that fall under the remit of external PR and Marketing agencies has meant a move from supplier and advisor, to coordinator and educator.

In this new role, Sara Wilde McKeown described collaboration as ‘key’ while Kate Cox highlighted how agencies didn’t need to deliver all of the services recommended to a client.

She said: “It used to just be PR, Advertising and a Media Buyer, but now clients are often daunted by what’s on offer. They don’t really know what they need.

“Our job now is to find out what their objective is and identify what will deliver those results. We don’t necessarily have to deliver all of the work, we coordinate and work with other specialists.”

It is not just the distribution of tasks to relevant specialists either, it’s sometimes handing the power to the clients themselves, a point made by Sara later in the conversation.

“Clients don’t want to be reliant on agency in certain competencies,” she said. “So agencies can train them up instead of delivering the service.”

Emma Carey, from MSB Solicitors agreed with the impact the shift in media has had on in-house teams, but highlighted the importance of professional service specialists taking the time to feed into the work of appointed agencies.

“We are overwhelmed by the jargon and we need to be educated. But we know our businesses better than anyone and we need to feed our agencies that expertise.”

Billable Hours

As with previous Sector Sync discussions, the conversation inevitably turned to two consistent bones of contention for creative businesses, the brief and budget.

For many PR and Marketing agencies, there is a focus on billable hours, much like the world of fee earners in the professional services sector. As such, an understanding of budget is vital when pitching for work.

The abundance of different approaches and tactics now available means that PR and Marketing agencies can offer clients so much, but at a cost. This makes a brief with no indicative budget near impossible to respond to accurately.

“We can be flying high with our ideas then find out there’s not enough budget,” Kate said. “We bill in hours so we need to know how much time the team has, so we know where to focus its energies.”

“Nothing Worse Than a Bad Brief”

Another frustration consistent with our previous events was a poorly written brief. Sara, highlighted instances of briefs that demanded a demonstration of creativity and innovation, alongside a 15-point list of required items that zapped the opportunity for creativity out of any response.

“There’s nothing worse than a bad brief,” she said. “We want to look at the client’s landscape as a whole and be more fluid in what we come back with.”

Kate supported this and explained the most successful pitch processes she has experienced have been when the client is willing to give more time to sit down and talk in depth about the business and its needs.

“There’s no doubt that it takes more time, which is an investment on both client and agency side,” Kate said. “But that commitment delivers a far better outcome in the long run.”

Gavin’s experience in the tech sector reflected this, as well as the disparity between what clients want and what they actually need. His example highlighted a significant change in direction for one client brief, after Mashbo’s team was allowed to spend time and delve deeper into the business before responding.

“We were approached to develop a recruitment platform, but when we looked into the business and spent time with key people we found they were training staff up and then they were leaving,” Gavin explained. “What they needed was a retention platform, which was what we pitched.”

Is Traditional PR & Marketing Dead?

As the event drew to a close, the panel agreed there was still need for traditional approaches, but applied on a case by case basis.

In recent years digital tactics have been favoured because the results are immediately available. But the development of new and sophisticated tools mean that results that have previously been considered intangible, such as awareness and sentiment, are becoming more measurable.

Sara said: “Everything is becoming more measurable. Sentiment tracking, pre campaign research/post campaign research and work with stakeholders - it’s not immediate like digital, but it can be quantified.”

Whether traditional PR or Marketing tactics should be used in campaigns came back to the same point made at the start when discussing client briefs - will it deliver on client objectives?

On this point Emma added: “For us, traditional media coverage boosts staff morale and revitalises team, which in turn gets us more business.”

For Gavin, visibility in the Third Sector press delivers more new leads for a key sector for his business, while for Kate, online micro-influencers deliver greater impact for some of deWinter’s clients.

What PR & Marketing agencies can best offer professional service clients, in this time of constant change and evolution, is education - what’s changing, what it means and how they should respond. Collaboration, both with external specialists and internal teams, is what will then deliver the results.