If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be sitting in a room with 10 CMOs wanting to discuss public relations, I would have said you were nuts. However that is exactly what I did this past week. Matt Harrington, our chair, and members of the PRC gathered a group of CMOs together at the Soho House in NYC to discuss the rapidly changing marketplace and the role agencies that offer public relations can play.

The discussion confirmed some of what we already knew, but other parts of our talk were quite revealing. As the marketplace continues to transform, I’m going to be working harder for our industry to get even closer to the CMO community to provide them with things to think about as they move forward, and to gain insights from them as our industry evolves. In the weeks ahead, you can expect to see more insight from this community in our PRC channels, and we will be replicating this CMO Advisory Breakfast on a bigger scale toward the end of the year. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Below, please find several key takeaways we (somewhat) knew but that were confirmed at the breakfast, as well as other insights as to how PR agencies and our industry are perceived by this client group whose budgets are poised to grow 4-5 % per year for the balance of the decade.

5 Interesting Takeaways

  1. There is still confusion as to which sort of agency should lead on social media, in their eyes. Is it a PR firm or is it a digital agency?
  2. The fragmented agency landscape is confusing. Should they be looking for a ‘best in breed’ for their various communications needs, one-stop shop that provides all services, or is the new ‘Deloitte/McKinsey/Accenture/etc. communications an option worth considering?
  3. Talent – need I say more? It’s imperative that agencies evolve their talent, quickly. What used to work before is not working now so no need to bring ‘order takers’ to the meeting. Let’s not underestimate the need for very strong strategic thinkers – thinkers that can challenge the business strategies and models. They want talent that can be ‘thought leaders’, that think with a business-first lens. (unfortunately, there was a feeling that the PR industry still has a ‘strategic void’ at times)
  4. Creative still is the foundation for a lot of agency choices. CMOs are looking at ‘in house’ teams versus outsourcing these days as the need for speed with digital has become so strong.
  5. Internal Communications is playing a big role in the world of the CMO as employees on social media (as we know) can impact a brand in both good and bad ways. It’s important that Internal Communications reports into the appropriate function within the enterprise, and not be simply put into HR.

Other important points I took away:

  • There is definitely opportunity to show up more strategically – many PR agencies are telling CMOs they have planners, digital strategists, and analysts, but they’re still showing up with the same old team.
  • Focus early conversations on their business needs – what drives quarterly and annual returns and growth vs. capabilities.
  • CMOs put paramount importance on the brief; i.e., it’s imperative our PR teams understand brand voice, company and brand business objectives, etc. Respect and use the brief properly. If you or your team is not challenging the CMO or CEO enough, you are not doing your job. The ad agency teams challenge them a lot….the consensus was PR firms do not.
  • It is sometimes felt that the ad agency will ‘swing for the fences’ with ideas and then the PR agency comes in with “well, here’s the risk….” We all know that is sometimes one of our most valuable contributions (ahem, Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad…) however we must showcase our “swing for the fences” thinking too!

When asked what parting advice these CMOs had for our agencies, they shared:

  • Be proactive!
  • Really work to understand their role, and their role five years from now – what sort of talent will you need then to service them?
  • Some degree of process is obviously always needed, but is especially important when working with a CMO. Plan quarterly meetings to not only evaluate the past performance but to proactively talk strategy about the future.
  • Always think about the customers’ perspective when you are giving them counsel. Take initiative. Get the insight and share analytics.
  • Beef-up your ‘digital storytelling’ ability and with AI, VR, etc.
  • When you are part of an integrated team, be the integrator.
  • PR firms need to have more of an ability to analyze results.

There’s really no turning back now. Are we ready? At the PRC, we are doing our best to bring you insights, training and inspiring POVs – here is a link to our new Integrated Communications Masterclass Series. Industry: Now is the time.

“….The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slowest now, will later be fast
As the present now, will later be past
The order is rapidly fading and the first one now will later be last
Cause the times they are a-changing…” Bob Dylan

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