Starting All Over Again

From point A to BI’ve been traveling a lot, spending a lot of time on the road, alone, in hotel rooms and airplanes, etc.  The mind wanders.  After the people watching gets boring, after the emails and RSS feeds are read and gone, you can enter a fanciful zone.  You can ask yourself questions like, “Knowing what I now know, what would I do differently?”

Thankfully there’s not a thing I’d really change on the personal front.  At work, the question is more complex to answer.  The marketing arena has undergone fundamental changes since we founded SHIFT in 2003.  And while certainly we did plenty of things “right,” as judged by our client roster and talent pool, there are many things worth re-considering when trying to answer the “What would I do differently” question.

I asked my Twitter friends this question last night: “Knowing what you now know of SM/mktg/PR, if you could start over, would you even start an agency? How would you staff it?”  The answers were pretty varied.

Many seemed to think that an agency started from scratch today ought to be staffed by multi-disciplinary experts (everything from PR to SEO to website and UI design were mentioned); more than one talked about creating a collective of freelancers, i.e., the virtual agency model.

I dunno, though.  As I look out at my colleagues and think about their roles and responsibilities, I’m not sure what I would change.

The junior staff is critical to our research, monitoring and reporting. Clients demand those services.

The mid-level managers are critical to our mainstream and social media relationship efforts, to our day-to-day team management, and to upleveling issues to clients and in-house executives.  They have a bead on trends that will impact marketing programs.  Clients demand those services.

The senior executives are critical to setting messaging and strategy; they are sought-after counselors for both internal folks and of course to our client contacts.  They assume ultimate responsibility for a program’s success or failure.  Clients demand those services.

Do clients ALSO want SEO?  Website design?  Content Creation?  Widget development?  Social Media Brand Management (e.g., running YouTube and Facebook accounts)?  Yes, but it is on a client-by-client basis versus an every-single-client basis.  It’s not financially feasible nor responsible to hire SEO experts, website designers, etc., as full-time employees who could wind up sitting on their hands between assignments.

So ultimately we offer a hybridized mix of in-house and trusted partner-based services to meet client demands.

And yet … and yet … I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing something vital in my thinking.  We’re trying to build something pretty special over here.  Status quo won’t do, not ever.  Can you help?

Help by making me even more paranoid than I already am:  given the chance to give me some advice in 2003 about how to staff and run and market this agency, what would you have suggested?  And what do you suggest today?



Posted on: September 29, 2009 at 9:46 am By Todd Defren
26 Responses to “Starting All Over Again”

 

Comments
  • Gerard Bush says:

    First, let me begin by saying I love that you have opened this dialogue and are willing to look at perhaps the broader picture. I have worked in pr, marketing and advertising in various capacities for years; prior to starting my own boutique pr and advertising firm hybrid just six short months ago. I think what has made us so successful, in what many call a hostile environment of a recession and in an over abundance of mediocrity in pr, at least in my home city of Miami, is the fact that we began on a foundation of “the deliberate organic” That little adage, phrase…whatever you want to call it , carries tremendous weight with my clients. The premise is to staff your organization with folks that as a collective can meet the expectations of the clients needs which today ultimately is about reaching their audience in a way that is seemingly authentic, accidental, pure and vetted by the trusted sect of the target audience your client is attempting to touch in substantive ways. At brpr, we have a team that consist of those that were raised employing the tools of social media in their daily lives; not those just arriving to the station after the train has already left. We also have traditional media strategist that utilize the pr and advertising components of our business to fan the flames of interest for the client in way that is far more robust than by simply using one or the other. The truth is, pr firms of today ,should have; at minimum, experts in social and digital media, advertising (this would include media planning/buying/art direction,etc) and contract out their SEO and website construction to trusted partners that are equal in expertise to those areas foreign perhaps to the firm itself. My prediction is that the firms of tomorrow will be a fully advertising/pr social and digital media hybrid and the remainder will go the way of the dinosaur. I suggest to a firm starting today that they consider my points or look in the sky for the asteroid that is surely to come….

  • Gerard Bush says:

    First, let me begin by saying I love that you have opened this dialogue and are willing to look at perhaps the broader picture. I have worked in pr, marketing and advertising in various capacities for years; prior to starting my own boutique pr and advertising firm hybrid just six short months ago. I think what has made us so successful, in what many call a hostile environment of a recession and in an over abundance of mediocrity in pr, at least in my home city of Miami, is the fact that we began on a foundation of “the deliberate organic” That little adage, phrase…whatever you want to call it , carries tremendous weight with my clients. The premise is to staff your organization with folks, that as a collective, can meet the expectations of the client’s needs; which today ultimately is about reaching their audience in a way that is seemingly authentic, accidental, pure and vetted by the trusted sect of the target audience your client is attempting to touch in substantive ways. At brpr Miami, we have a team that consist of those that were raised employing the tools of social media in their daily lives; not those just arriving to the station after the train has already left. We also have traditional media strategist that utilize the pr and advertising components of our business to fan the flames of interest for the client in a way that is far more robust that by simply using one or the other. The truth is, pr firms of today should have; at minimum, experts in social and digital media, advertising (this would include media planning/buying/art direction,etc) and contract out their SEO and website construction to trusted partners that are equal in expertise to those areas foreign perhaps to the firm itself. My prediction is that the firms of tomorrow will be a fully advertising/pr social and digital media hybrid and the remainder will go the way of the dinosaur. I suggest to a firm starting today that they consider my points or look in the sky for the asteroid that is surely to come….

  • While I’d never wish anxiety on anyone, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one wrestling with this (and I’m not even an agency man).

    The short answer is probably that all of the models you suggested are viable, each with its own strengths and shortcomings.

    The long answer, as others more capably stated, is that you have to know what kind of company YOU want to be. Not what services are in demand, not what clients want you to be — how do YOU want the world to look? Clients, employees, and partners come and go. Trends rise and fall. There’s more than one road to success, and you can pick any road you want.

    How do you meet clients’ needs for SEO, widgets, content creation, brand management, etc? Here’s an analogy: A police department’s bread-and-butter is the men in blue — the basic officers. But a good police bureau has a SWAT team, hostage negotiators, traffic cops, etc. for situational needs. Who are YOUR situational specialists?

  • Adam says:

    My suggestion is to make use of the various talented freelancers out there. A cost effective way is to hook up with universities and get students to do your work. Not always effective but sometimes you can get amazing work for almost free.

  • While each business is different and the guidance that works for one agency may not work for another, there are a few fundamental approaches that anyone can follow. One of which is to do a little bit of soul searching and self-evaluation at least every 6 to 12 months, rather than years later.

    For example, when I look back on the virtual agency I founded in 2001, there’s nothing fundamental I would change. But perhaps that’s because over the past 8 years, I have taken the time at frequent intervals to evaluate various aspects of my business. I have made several minor tweaks along the way to ensure that when I look back now, there are no regrets and no thoughts about “I wish I had…”, “What if…”.

    Your post is a timely reminder that there’s no better time than the present to do another health check.

    @JodiEchakowitz

  • Ari herzog says:

    Why are you gung ho on changing the status quo? Why does “starting over” need to involve changing something that may work?

    • Todd Defren says:

      When I say “status quo” I mean “at other agencies.”

      Then again I am a huge fan of paranoia. Even when “status quo” = “excellence,” I want us to be thinking about how things might change and how we can do better.

      • Todd – When you say you are a huge fan of paranoia, what exactly do you mean? I think from many perspectives, paranoia can often be seen as a negative, as in, you are constantly looking for what is wrong, rather than building on what is going well. Certainly, you need to look to see what isn’t working so well – or at all – but at the same time, constantly trying looking for the bad parts of a business may not engender the greatest results in the long run. This is certainly just my opinion, but when I think of how businesses operate and improve, I think of a company seeking to build upon a strong foundation of what is already going well, rather than constantly trying to pick apart and rebuild the parts of the business that are not going so well. Once you start doing that, I wonder if you are actually improving the business in the long run.

        BTW, this is entirely an outsider’s perspective of this, and is in now way an attack on how you run SHIFT. I’m a big fan of your firm, and the work you all have produced, and I certainly think you all are on the right track to creating a terrific PR agency, so kudos to you for that! I just wanted to offer my take on how I perceive the concept of “paranoia” in the business world.

        @KeithTrivitt

  • KNEALE MANN says:

    Hey Todd,

    Great post – as always!

    I’m sure your number is higher but I have easily spent many months’ worth of my life on a plane and a couple of years’ worth of nights sleeping in hotel rooms on the road. The glamor wears thin after about day five.

    But it can also be a time to reflect and give distance to what you are doing, what you are accomplishing and how you are helping.

    The “marketing” world is not “changing” – the entire world is, constantly. Things you did when you founded SHIFT may eventually be completely replaced by new stuff. I remember the first time I had an office full of staff hovering over my desk as I dared to hit “send” on our first “email blast”. A lot has changed in 15 years.

    Remember when you put together your first resume for a job application? You had some school history, maybe a part-time job or two, but somehow you stretched that sucker to a page or two. Long descriptions were included to make your experience look bigger.

    Now you can barely get everything you’ve done on to a page or two with simple headings. Why? It’s because it has become more of a functional document rather than a chronological one.

    This is not about social media, public relations or marketing. This is about the functions you provide your team and your clients. Those functions will transform and progress. That’s the evolution of our industry, our lives and our world. Some of us just need to be slightly ahead of the curve so when the laggards ask, we might just know a little bit of what we’re talking about.

    And at the root is people and the idea. Without those two ingredients, all this is quite irrelevant.

    @knealemann

  • Sabrina Horn says:

    Building an interactive services group in 2003 was one of the best moves Horn Group ever made. Over 80% of our portfolio is in some way integrated. Today, some hire us just for our interactive/web services and then become social media/PR clients. Clients get one unified message delivered through multiple platforms and media in a wholistic approach. Our engagements are more interesting, our work is on the whole more valuable. Growing this organically, enculturating the multitude of web services among the PR staff, managing the infrastructure/back office issues are not for the faint of heart — there were hurdles to overcome but it was all worth it. Having a core team is critical with a few skilled variable workers to handle the peaks. As a digital communications agency, having these capabilities is a requirement, and its a huge differentiator. Our industry must support both the verbal and the visual brand in order to be effective. If I had to do it all over again, I would have done it even sooner! — Sabrina



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