In house v agency – do we know each other well enough?

Apologies from the start for anyone that isn’t in the PR industry. This is very “industry noodling”

I’ve noticed quite a lot of senior #PR consultants sounding off on linkedin and other platforms. They are correctly annoyed about poor practice from their in house brethren – that they’ve been taken for a ride or being asked to work for free.

As a onetime career consultant that might jump back over the fence in the future, (14 years consultancy, 4 years and counting in house) I agree that this is unacceptable and should be called out. We all know the difference between an honest mistake and poor professional practice and we should all strive for professional courtesy and respect. I’d imagine that this has been going on for as long as there’s been a PR industry and I’ve heard about it in other professional services industries with lawyers, management consultants and investment banks being expected to bend over backwards to win a mandate and not to be treated particularly well when trying to do so – although they might feel that its acceptable given the extra 000s on their bills.

However, since leaving consultancy, I’ve both reevaluated some of the behaviours I’d seen previously and also seen new things that make me wonder if I want to hire any PR consultancy, but alternatively look for enhanced in house capacity, whether that’s full-time perm or something more flexible.

Built in costs that bring limited value. PR as a commoditised service, not as bespoke value creation. Models that work very well if servicing a certain sort of organisation but aren’t applicable in other cases. A lack of industrial or thematic understanding that it would have been better to admit earlier than throwing their hat in the ring. Senior resource at a pitch that will be only tangentially included in the work if it’s won. Siloed P&Ls that help the consultancy manage itself but mitigate against client service.

Of course I’m aware that the consultancies I’m thinking of have designed their offering around the sort of client that will give them the most business and to have as broad an offering as possible to maximise their income generation. The challenge for me is that this hasn’t been particularly useful as a client.

Since moving in house, I’ve worked at two fairly atypical firms that need detailed understanding of the industrial and wider environment, so I’m aware that my experience is perhaps atypical, but it’s also been far from purely positive.

I’ve also found that so many assumptions I used to have about inhouse work after 14 years consultancy weren’t entirely correct. How PR  / Comms / Marketing / Advertising works on an institutional basis within an organisation will obviously be different on a case by case basis but what has really struck me is the limited engagement one has a consultant with in house executive teams – eg around major transactions and crises  – can create a skewed perspective of how the organisation really functions during “peacetime” – both the role of the Executive in the comms value chain and that of the inhouse team.

The conclusion? I’m not sure there is one, and I’m not overkeen to limit my future employment prospects (yes Dad, if you’re reading this, I probably shouldn’t have published this blog at all) but I think that as ever the pathway to success is enhanced dialogue and understanding.

Those of us in house need to treat consultants with professional respect, understanding and empathy. Don’t brief that you want the entire Red Army if you only want / can pay for a light platoon. Don’t expect an agency to invest the equivalent of 3 months worth of fee time into a pitch to give you ideas for free. Understand senior engagement costs. Don’t ghost.

Consultants? Ask more questions, don’t make assumptions about how a firm is structured and operates. Turn down opportunities that you know are marginal. Be straightforward about what the client gets and does not get for certain prices. Be transparent about team structure and who does the work and at what price and don’t get snotty if you’re asked to demonstrate that they really have done so.

And if you’re going to have a bitching session about how awful those in house PR people are, be careful when, how and where you do it.

2 thoughts on “In house v agency – do we know each other well enough?

  1. As someone else who has spent time on both sides of the fence lots to agree with here. If you find a good client or a good agency hang on to them.

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