Back To Now: Grading ‘Agency of the Future’ Predictions From 2006

Among the more interesting items discovered in my annual year-end clean-up of old files, documents and correspondences: notes for a talk given at the UK PRCA annual conference in 2006 during which I tried to predict the ‘ideal agency of the future.’ 

This is not to be confused with a recent PRCA conference on the Future of PR, certainly a better source of prognostication for the industry than my meager slides from seven years ago; even so, it’s mildly entertaining to look back at the predictions and assess our progress against them.  

And like anyone making public predictions would, I hedged. Rather than saying what I thought would happen, I listed five things that I thought should happen. 

(See what I did there? If my predictions have failed to materialize, it’s not because they were wrong; it’s because the industry failed to meet my high standards).

But here they are, along with a “Back to the Future” rating scale: a one to five Marty McFly score, where a one is “We’ve Actually Regressed” and a five is “OMG That Was Creepy How He Saw That Coming.” I’ll resist the urge to apply these very subjective scores to the industry at large and apply them primarily to the firm I know best, Ketchum – but hopefully they’re not wildly off the mark for others.

The PR Agency of the Future:

1.…will be ‘glocalised.’ Borrowing Thomas Friedman’s mash-up term to reflect capabilities that are both hyper-local and globally connected, I suggested that success in a worldwide PR marketplace would require agencies to be grounded in their local or national markets while connected, one way or another, to the wider global network for insight and wisdom from abroad.

McFly Rating: 3

We made some significant acquisitions, mergers and partnerships to dramatically expand our global footprint in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.   More work remains to be done in Africa and Latin America.

2. …will be versatile. By this, I meant that successful firms will forgo the “accumulate everything” mentality and forge partnerships with all kinds of specialist agencies, consultancies, law firms, research groups, and even competitors to offer clients the deep expertise they’ll require in a constantly shifting landscape.

McFly Rating:  4

We’ve shown a strong capacity to develop all sorts of partnerships with other Omnicom firms, analytic modelling companies, disaster specialists, clinical trial recruitment, change management consultancies, and a host of others. At the same time, we’ve created our own offers in medical education, sports/entertainment/ music marketing and financial communications.

The PR Agency of the Future will offer …

3. value and results. Little did we know in 2006 that we were headed toward an economic iceberg in terms of a global recession, a reality that accelerated the need to demonstrate the value and predictability of every penny of PR spending.

McFly Rating:  4

We’ve been among the leaders in our steadfast commitment to research, measurement, analytics and return-on-investment, and we’re proud to have driven this through our own service proposition as well as through industry initiatives such as the Barcelona Principles, led by our own David Rockland.

Services of the PR Agency of the Future will be grounded in…

4. collaboration, community and credibility. Okay, I’m cheating a little here by combining three predictions, but the idea is that services would be less focused on specific deliverables, like a press release, and more toward those developed in partnership with others outside the agency. The ultimate goal of this would be to ameliorate relations with clients’ communities and stakeholders over time, built on credibility and trust rather than exposure or publicity.

McFly Rating: unknown

The jury is still out on this one. We’ve made great strides with collaborative and crowdsourcing innovations like Mindfire and Ide8, and we’ve invested considerable time and resources in original research into what drives credibility in matters related to consumer goods, food, medicine, and corporate and institutional leadership.  But have we, or has anyone, cracked the code?  Not quite.

And finally:

5. Content will be a battleground.  I said we would be locked in combat with the ad agencies, the emerging ‘digital’ agencies and a host of others to provide content that would cut across owned, bought and shared channels.

McFly Rating: 5

Yes, that was an easy one.  Of course we would end up in battle with other marketing and communications disciplines for the ‘ownership’ of content, and while PR in general (and Ketchum in particular) has enjoyed success, nobody has landed an immoveable or permanent claim.  The contest for content will wage on for years, if not decades.

So what does the successful agency of 2019 look like? Flying cars, five-course meals in a pill and robotic interns? I’ll leave those predictions to someone else, but in the words of Dr. Emmet Brown, “If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious stuff.”