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The Strategy Room

Four Key Lessons from 25 Years: What Running an Agency Taught Me

By: Peter V. Stanton

Peter Stanton 25 Years

This month concludes the 25th year in business for Stanton Communications. What began as a one-person shop today is an enterprise with a track record of success for some of the largest companies in the world and a trophy case full of awards for program excellence. In some respects, little of that matters. Today, there is, after all these years, no time for laurel resting. Our industry is intensely more competitive than it was in 1989. The giants of the PR business are feeling the pressures just as acutely and perhaps more so as the smaller independents like us. With respect to larger, holding company-owned firms, Paul Holmes writes in his World PR Report, “…perhaps their sheer size makes them less flexible or less nimble in times of rapid change.” Surely there is a great deal of truth to that.

Our experience with clients we sometimes refer to as “refugees” because they have fled the big firms, indicates something deeper is occurring. The big agencies – and even many smaller firms – seem to have forgotten what our business is about. Here are four fundamental lessons learned from the past 25 years that continue to serve us well and guide everything we do:

Serve

A client recently told us her experience working with us is far better than anything she experiences from any other firms. We listen. We probe. We counsel. But most important, we serve her needs and fulfill on our commitments to her. We never forget that we are in business to help our clients achieve their business objectives and not to promote ourselves. A former agency consultant repeatedly admonished us that our mantra needed to be “Firm First” above all else. That consultant is no longer with us. Our mantra is now and always has been “Client First.” It is why this firm was created in the first place. The focus on client needs and priorities must never come in second to agency priorities. A sage mentor told me in my first agency job, “Take care of your clients and you will succeed.” It was true then and it’s true today 25 years after we founded an agency on that basic concept.

Engage

Our industry has undergone more transformational change than any other in history perhaps save for the telephone business. Today, our work involves a tremendous reliance on digital communication and outreach. In fact, a plethora of firms have sprung up specializing exclusively in digital communication. As vitally important as digital has become, one must decide to either “hit SEND or hit the bullseye.” By this we mean that blind mass distribution of emails, blogger communication or journalist outreach can never be as effective as personal interaction. To be sure, you can hit “send” or use Twitter and still hit the bullseye, but only if the outreach is direct and relevant to the individual you are engaging. Before email existed, media relations meant picking up the telephone and making certain the journalist you reached was the right one for the story. In effect, the same is true today with journalists, bloggers and social media channels. We are in a people business. When we engage personally with our targets, great things happen for our clients.

Assess

The public relations profession always has placed tremendous emphasis on measurement. As a Silver Anvil judge, I have seen brilliant programs fall short of awards for the paucity of their measurement components. Here, we make a distinction between measurement and assessment. We view measurement as an exercise in creative counting – advertising equivalency; impressions; media placement tallies. Today, we can add to that list Likes, Re-tweets and Shares.
Assessment is a more critical analysis of whether our message is reflected in the media placement or mention, whether the medium or social channel reaches the most important audience, and the degree to which we can see a genuine change in behavior – purchasing, policy discussions, engagement with key audiences. The kind of sophisticated tools and technologies that didn’t exist 25 years ago make this a far more accurate and reportable function. It also is far more credible and legitimate than creative counting.

Refine

The greatest sin in the agency business is arrogance. Agencies never know their clients’ industries or businesses as well as the client. Respect for that experience and insight must be accorded. It means we can advise and assist, but not pretend that our recommendations derive from omniscience.

Some years ago, we convened a panel of clients and corporate communicators we wished were clients. We asked them what they needed most from their agencies. The discussion covered the pressures on in-house departments and staff, the deadline intensity, and the lack of opportunity to read, research and thoughtfully develop plans. They could always find arms and legs, we were told, but in the end the greatest value an agency could provide was to “Help us Think.” From that, we built a strategic planning – or thinking – protocol that we continue to apply for clients today. Central to that process is an appreciation that our plans and ideas are never inspired genius no matter how good they are. Circumstances change. The environment for communication of an idea or position is dynamic. As a result, our programs must change. So we refine them with our clients and adapt as needed. One of our client service maxims is “Deliver your counsel with humility.” It’s an ethic and core value that compels us to be willing to modify our approach.

The world of professional communication continues to evolve, but vital lessons stand us in good stead. Twenty-five years into running an agency, I continue to think the earliest lessons remain the best.




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