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15 May 2014

A crisis in Consumer PR and 5 things to do about it

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by Celia Clark

Last week I posted details of two director-level opportunities in Consumer PR. One was in house and attracted lots of interest. The other was at an agency and barely received any.

The results reinforced a trend we’ve seen strengthening over the last ten months – that there is a severe shortage of high calibre Consumer PR professionals (with agency experience) that want to work in an agency, full time, at senior level. Agencies with an appetite to hire either have to wait a long time or don’t have enough quality candidates to compare. Or both. My experience is that it’s tough to even engage people about a senior agency role – many write it off before hearing about the people they’ll be working with or about how they can shake things up and make an impact, be remembered for something.

The reasons for this reluctance to continue a career agency-side are varied – perhaps not wanting to abandon hard-won client relationships to start again, or perhaps fatigue with agency culture and even with the culture of Consumer ‘stuff’ (are people searching for more substance to their PR mission as they go up the ladder?) It’s also the case that Consumer PR is predominantly female and that women with young families often say an agency role is impossible to fulfil.

Whatever the reasons the long and the short of it is that many senior people would prefer to work in-house or on a freelance / contract basis where they can continue doing the work they enjoy without any of the other senior agency responsibilities they enjoy less.

How can we inspire more people to stay and work at the top of Consumer agencies?

  1. Agencies have to sell themselves better. (Some are already very good at this.) There’s the big picture – client work, culture, opportunity. But small things can make a big impact on people, too. Everyone needs to be trusted, feel valued, and to know that the agency isn’t just a money-making machine. Last week at Media360 Jonathan Austin, the CEO of the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For list, announced that 45% of media company staff said they would leave tomorrow if they had something to go to and that building staff engagement involved being “clear about your reason for being beyond making money.”
  2. Job seekers must shed preconceived ideas about other agencies. Gossip is alive and well in the PR industry and it can make or break an agency’s reputation as an employer. If you’re looking for a new role you should make your own mind up by going to see for yourself. Many agencies are making significant changes to the way they operate in order to become better places to work.
  3. Agencies need to find a way to harness the tide of women that have left the industry to have families and want to come back but can’t necessarily work five days a week in the office. Finding a successful flexible working model would be, I think, the single thing most likely to make a difference to the shortage of senior people in the Consumer PR job market.
  4. People often say they get to a stage where they want to ‘get under the skin’ of a brand and go in house so that they can give direction rather than be on the receiving end it. But remember that in-house positions have challenges, too.
  5. Agencies could be less blinkered about hiring senior people from in-house roles. Yes, it’s a different kind of juggle working in an agency; yes, everyone has to know how to pitch for new business. Some people won’t make the transition successfully but there are some who will and perhaps this is a good time to meet them. Surely as long as a team has a good combination of all the necessary skills and attributes, sometimes it might work to have someone from client side.

For the moment, though, it remains a challenge to attract senior people into consumer agency roles.