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How Agencies are Learning to Walk Upright

28th September 2016

US creative director, Will Kunkel ponders the evolution of comms.

When people used to ask my beloved grandmother what I did once I graduated and started my career, her reply was almost always the same. “He does something with computers.” This was, I suppose, ostensibly true. I did in fact use a computer, but what I did seemed pretty obvious to me. I worked in advertising. I made ads. I helped build brands and helped them market to their customers. Well, 16 odd years later, what I do is not nearly as simple and maybe my nana was onto something.

Twenty years ago, there were no digital agencies. There were PR agencies, ad agencies, direct-marketing agencies. Rarely did they intersect in a meaningful way and data was whatever we were able to cobble together from a focus group. As things developed and the internet became a more meaningful way to connect (and arguably now the primary way to connect), agencies started to adapt. Slowly and often painfully.

Fighting for change or fighting change

Again, much like the rest of technology, the last 20 years have brought about more change to the way agencies operate than the 100 or so years that preceded it. Early digital work was transactional, so direct marketers had the upper hand but rather than blindly buying tv and print ad space by audience, traditional ad agencies began to see digital as a cheaper, more flexible and more targeted way to reach an audience. Brand dollars began to shift to digital buys. Data added a whole layer of complexity and accountability. You couldn’t fudge effectiveness because the numbers were the numbers. Something worked or it didn’t.

This has meant that an agency staff looks far different than it might have 10 years ago. What was once pretty simple — you had writers, account leads, art directors, traffic people and maybe the odd strategist — could now include a data scientist or a planner.

Content is king but who are its subjects?

But what about PR agencies? Rather than pitch and place news, as writers by trade and storytellers by nature, PR pros were now expected not only to disseminate the news but to help create it. The lines began to blur between who owned the story. But increasingly, truly integrated PR agencies are staking a claim. While the press release has its place, we are now seeing new ways to proliferate stories from infographics to videos and native placements and influencer and blogger outreach. And the newness and luster of social media has worn off while somehow conversely getting more important. The difference being that while it is now widely accepted that social isn’t an idea, it’s equally true and hugely important that social channels are in many cases the best delivery means of targeting an audience. While the goal is the same, the channels and means of delivery have changed and have gotten more focused.

The challenge of all this change is that we are constantly learning and evolving. The opportunity is that as content becomes the ad, the story, everything really — it puts PR agencies at the forefront of change in communications.

Grayling Team

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