“She was practically shouting at me down the phone. I was in tears after the call ended.”
That’s what I was told recently by someone employed by one of the agencies I work with about a conversation with a client.
It refers to a piece of work undertaken by the consultant that referenced the client themselves and a business partner. The client was angry that the work may have harmed the business relationship. But unbeknownst to the client, the partner had already emailed the consultant to tell them how delighted they were.
It’s an example of something I mentioned in my last post; the pompous, petulant and disrespectful attitude displayed by some towards those working in communications agencies.
It’s not a new development. And nor is it isolated.
Lack of Respect
I remember way back in about 2001 the agency I worked for had a client who, basically, took the piss. She would regularly make unrealistic demands that as an agency we’d bend over backwards to accommodate, and if we didn’t she’d stamp her feet and throw her toys out of the pram.
Both examples point to a serious lack of respect. It’s something I’ve witnessed time and again over the last 15 years, and it’s equally as applicable to some junior client-side staff as it is to some director level personnel.
To be clear, this isn’t a blanket rule. Not all clients treat agency people like crap, and many are amazing to work with. But a condescending attitude is far more common than you might think. Ask around any agency and you’ll find at least one, normally several clients whose attitude sucks.
So why is this?
It could be a client-side issue. It could be that some people on that side of the fence think they’re in some way superior to those they pay to help them. It could be that they don’t recognise the skills and talents of agency people, or understand the nature of working in an agency environment. In which case, I have to say, why employ them? Are they a ‘necessary evil’, resented and forced upon on them by lack of time or resource?
Or, alternatively, it could be a problem with the way agencies position themselves and the people they employ.
Outdated Organisational Models
I’ve helped several communications agencies in the last few months to start to restructure around what a modern agency needs. The traditional, hierarchical, role-based model is outdated and suffocating; as I wrote a year ago, it’s failing the industry.
It positions agencies as ‘suppliers’; people who, as a client, I’d employ as a resource to do my bidding. And it necessitates a company full of generalist consultants who can each do a bit of media relations, a bit of copywriting, a bit of planning, a bit of tweeting…
If, instead, agencies were structured around skills and specialist knowledge, their whole positioning and value proposition alters to being consultants with something to offer that even if a client did have all the time in the world, they couldn’t do themselves.
In a brief conversation with Scott Guthrie and Michael Blowers on Twitter, Scott threw in two terms I’d not heard before but that explain perfectly this ‘new’ way of thinking (though it’s actually far from new):
— Scott Guthrie (@sabguthrie) 25 February 2016
‘Holocracy’ is neither hierarchical nor flat in structure. Instead it distributes power very clearly across a team, enabling autonomous working and responsibility. ‘Adhocracy’ is the opposite to bureaucracy; an organic structure based on specialised jobs/skills where individuals come together to form functional units for specific projects and then disband.
An adhocracy is therefore highly adaptive, creative and flexible, and great for problem solving. Is that not the nature of modern-day communications?
The Decline of the Generalist
And yet, the vast majority of communications agencies still recruit PR generalists when they have a vacancy, rather than taking the opportunity to bring in a specialist skill that maybe they don’t have (think an SEO specialist or a developer or a graphic designer). It is changing, but very, very slowly.
I can’t help but think that the days of the generalist are limited. There will always be a vital role for project managers, but that will be one distinct skill set out of five or six in an agency rather than the pervasive one. Which could leave a lot of PR people out of a job in five or ten years’ time.
Now consider my original hypothesis that there is a lack of respect between clients and agencies. Is it not reasonable to assume that, by offering the specialist knowledge and skills of specific individuals for specific projects rather than generalist knowledge across everything, agencies could start to add value to client relationships, reduce clients’ frustrations and stop the tears?
What do you think?