PR agencies must grow or die

That’s right, PR firms need to grow or they fail. Their demise may be slow but it’s relentless and inevitable.

Let me explain. Good PR firms hire ambitious talent; people who want fast-track (and even international) careers. They want to work on broader and more complex campaigns, they want to manage teams, to take more responsibility. Heck, some even want salary increases along the way.

The best people want progression. And you can’t keep the best people unless you deliver just that. And that means just one thing – growth. All the best firms are outward-looking and focused on expansion. As soon as that stops, staff turn inwards, careers reach ceilings and a gradual politicization begins. A PR firm which is not growing is one which will surely fail. It’ll lose the best new talent to expansion-oriented firms which can give them solid career paths, and the ones who remain are those without drive. The best clients soon pick up on the mediocrity and leave as well. Then you have mediocre staff working on average accounts.

I’ve met several agency heads who only want to grow their businesses to a certain size. Something which is ‘manageable’. Now that’s fine as far as it goes, but it comes at a price. And that price is the loss of top talent. The number two moves to set up their own shop, the hot wunderkind gets poached. There is no such thing as status quo within PR firms. Anyone who has lost their promising second in command will know how painful that is. Back down the snake you go.

The drive for growth comes at a price too of course. It’s hard to balance resources with the client roster profitably. Periodically, there are times when things get out of sync. It’s how quickly you respond which defines success. Too many clients and too few staff leads to burn out, and the loss of both staff and their clients. Too many staff without enough work eats profits and creates internal issues as people tread on each other’s toes.

Agency heads must win. Again and again. And not just win revenues, but win the right revenues. Backing the best clients who will execute on their plans. It’s not much fun doing the PR for the sixth in a market, it’s got to be the leader or the challenger. Growth based on the wrong clients won’t be consistent.

If you’re not an agency head, so what? What does this mean to you? Well, maybe it makes all the difference. It means you need to find out whether the agency you are planning to join or that perhaps you work with at the moment is growing consistently. Because if not, the only opps which will come your way will be from staff attrition above you. And those people will be going because they see something perhaps you don’t. If tomorrow looks like today, that’s a problem.

Of course, all firms have good and bad years. Agency fortunes swing sometimes on the most narrow of decisions (we’ve all been second in the pitch right?). But it’s the trend you need to look at. And the trend relative to the competition which is more important. Not all firms bombed in the downturn and not all firms are managing to grow in these warmer climes. It’s important that you’ve tied your career to a locomotive not a lamp post.

So for agency heads and their staff alike, that’s why the mantra is grow or die.