There are many challenges small- and medium-sized PR agencies face.
While the challenges are many, so are the opportunities.
For the longest time, I told myself that if this whole entrepreneurship thing failed, I could always go interview with other PR agencies—and get myself a fancy SVP job.
Today, I would rather cut off my right arm than go back to work for someone.
No offense to someone; it’s simply that I’ve become accustomed to controlling my own destiny. (And working in my cycling clothes.)
In some cases, that means I go an entire year (or more) without a paycheck.
And in other cases, it means the entire team is taking a corporate retreat to Italy and everyone is getting an iPad Pro.
It’s certainly not a lifestyle for the birds—and it doesn’t come without its challenges—but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
In the last 13 years, I’ve figured out a thing or two about running an organization.
There are at least seven challenges PR agencies face as they start out, add clients, grow their team, and build.
- Staying ahead of trends
- Staying competitive
- Balancing new business with client service
- Hiring the right people
- Overdependence on one client
- Establishing processes and systems
- Demonstrating results
Let’s explore them each, and find solutions so you don’t get stuck.
Staying Ahead of Trends
We talk about this one a lot, but staying ahead of trends is something today’s PR agencies must do.
There are plenty of ways to do that.
I really love (and still need to implement in my company) what Danny Iny does with his team.
The first Tuesday of every month is designated a professional development day.
Every person in his organization is to learn something new.
Some take online courses, others participate in groups they’re in, others get caught up on podcasts, and others work on their writing.
If your organization doesn’t allow a professional development day, it’s up to you.
- Figure out what skills you’re missing or need to enhance.
- Read K.D. Paine’s article on what the PR pro of the future looks like.
- Find the online course, event, agency owner program, or school course you can take.
- Create the business reason for the professional development.
- Ask your boss (or, if you’re the boss, make yourself do it).
- Get started.
Staying competitive goes hand-in-hand with staying ahead of trends for PR agencies.
We want to compete with the big boys, but we fight, what I call, the non-brand firing option.
It’s pretty rare that anyone has ever been fired because they took a chance on one of the big brands.
Even if the PR agency screws up, if it’s a well-known, well-established brand, it doesn’t become the fault of the hiring manager.
If, on the other hand, the hiring manager hires an unknown, but creative and nimble PR agency and they screw up?
Well, that person faces losing their job after the agency is fired.
Because of that unspoken phenomenon, smaller PR agencies are often overlooked.
The reality is we’re far more experienced, just as creative (if not more), and hundreds of times more nimble and flexible.
We don’t have the overhead the big PR agencies have—and we tend to specialize and know what we’re talking about.
Those are the things that, as you go to new business meetings, you should discuss.
Don’t let the large PR agencies enter the conversation.
Balancing New Business
When we talk with agency owners, they all say new business is a big, big challenge for them.
It’s why, earlier this year, we launched Close More Clients, our agency owner program that helps them predict a pipeline–and cash flow.
Balancing new business with doing the work is really, really difficult.
We have an agency owner client who has been laser-focused on achieving her sales goals this year.
And she’s knocked each quarter out of the park.
It’s pretty impressive to watch.
But it hasn’t come without its challenges.
She has stopped creating content, which is what was feeding the pipeline.
(She knows this is a problem because eventually the pipeline will dry up and she’ll have to start over.)
And she is in a hiring frenzy because there is so much work to be done.
Ideally, she would hire a client services director to handle all of the new clients, while she focuses on new business.
While a good problem to have, it’s still a challenge for most growing PR agencies.
Hiring the Right People
And speaking of hiring a client services director, hiring the right people is a major challenge for PR agencies.
I cannot tell you how much time and money I have spent on making the wrong choice in hiring.
In the beginning, I used the global PR agency mantra: Hire young and inexperienced and teach them.
As it turns out, that doesn’t work for smaller PR agencies because of what we discussed in “staying competitive” above.
It took a really long time to be able to afford to hire experienced, savvy communicators.
But it’s made a world of difference.
We are no longer the training grounds for young professionals to learn their craft and take it somewhere else.
(Something that really killed me every time it happened.)
Clients no longer feel like people are learning as they work on their business.
And I’m no longer spending my days teaching college graduates how to write a sentence that isn’t filled with grammatical and spelling errors.
It’s definitely a change in how you run your company, but hiring the right people is absolutely key to your success.
That isn’t to say you can’t hire young professionals—you absolutely should. But partner them with more seasoned pros on your team so they both can learn.
PR Agencies Overdepend on Clients
How many times have you seen an organization—not just PR agencies—rely on one gigantic client?
It happens a lot.
It’s not certainly something we set out to do, but as our clients grow, so do we.
Suddenly we have one or two large clients who take up all of our time, resources, and energy.
And then one of them leaves.
It could be because they want a larger agency, they change focus, or (in the case of the recession) they go out of business.
What happens to your PR agency when your largest client leaves?
At best, you have to scramble and replace it with 10-12 smaller clients.
At worst, you also go out of business.
As you plan for 2019, look at the balance of your clients and the revenue and margin they represent.
If they’re not equally spread out (or close to), your next year has to be focused on evening that out.
I would say that’s your number one—and only goal—for 2019, if that’s the case.
Forget about all of this other stuff and focus only on that.
You can come back to these other ideas in 2020.
One of the very best ways to do that is to add additional revenue streams.
For us, that includes online courses, books, speaking, and more.
Processes and Systems
I often joke that we don’t have processes and systems because if you put me in a box and make me conform, I will flounder.
As it turns out, that’s why I’m the entrepreneur.
Most people—and definitely PR agencies that need to scale—need processes and systems.
I changed my tune after I read Built to Sell.
(Every, single one of you should read that book.)
It helped me think about what we do really well, why we do it, and how to replicate it time and time again.
Then I read Virtual Freedom (another one everyone should read) and discovered that, without process, we would never scale.
Now, for everything we do, my team and I create videos that show you, step-by-step, how to do something.
This has become our process manual that guarantees we all do something the same way, with the same result.
Think about it this way: it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, the McDonald’s cheeseburger or your Starbucks latte tastes exactly the same.
It’s because they have a process (or recipe) that can be replicated the world over.
While this challenge isn’t a hard one for PR agencies to overcome, it is time intense.
Start now and create a process for something you do each day.
By this time next year, you’ll be in a really good spot.
This is one of the most important challenges PR agencies need to overcome.
For so long, we haven’t been held to real results.
We’ve reported media impressions and AVEs and gone on about our day.
And that’s been fine.
But it’s no longer the case.
The PR metrics we use have to include attribution, leads generated, and if we’re lucky, leads nurtured and closed.
When a PR agency does not start with strategy and end with results (with an integrated PESO model in between), we will not keep clients very long.
This is a challenge that is easy to overcome.
Start today by creating a spreadsheet.
Along the top, add:
- Unique users
- Time spent on site
- Bounce rate
- Traffic from referral sources (social media, specific stories, search)
- Traffic from specific activities (contributed content, landing pages)
- Leads generated
- Nurtured leads
- Leads closed
- Revenue generated
If you have access to Google Analytics (and you should), you can get the top five numbers pretty easily.
The marketing automation, email software, or CRM will have the sixth.
And the CRM will have the seventh through ninth.
The tenth comes from a little simple math: take the revenue generated and divide it by your budget.
For instance, if your budget is $60,000 and you generated $600,000, your ROI is 10:1.
Hopefully you have a 10:1 ROI—or even higher.
Your Own Challenges
Now it’s your turn.
I didn’t list every challenge PR agencies face here.
There certainly are more.
What challenges do you face?