In-house vs consultnacy
Head of Communications
It was once said to me that the difference between consultancy and in-house communications is that when you are a consultant you are geared towards thinking about what can be achieved on behalf of client organisations, while in-house PRs are “forced” to focus on what can’t be achieved.
There is undoubtedly some truth in this theory. In consultancy you are immune from the time-consuming day-to-day politics within client businesses, whereas, as an in-house communications professional, the day-to-day politics and the strands of company history largely shape the parameters of what you can do and say, and what you can’t.
It is of course the responsibility of in-house PRs to stamp their personality on the business they work for. It is their responsibility to ensure they have a clear vision and strategy of where and how, and in what form they should successfully develop the character and personality of the business they represent.
One thing is crucial in achieving this: in-house PRs must secure total confidence in their plans at board level. If the board do not believe, or have trust, in the character and capabilities of their communications department then, as an in-house professional, you will simply become a processor, unable to publicly and forcefully drive the strategic vision of the business you represent forward.
Having spent by far and away the most part of my career in consultancy, mainly within issues management, it is clear to me now, as an in-house communications professional, that without the experience gained through consultancy, overcoming and beating the challenges I now face on a day-to-day basis would be very difficult. Consultancy is akin to an accelerated learning curve and provides repeat opportunities that help ensure you can deliver complex communication strategies with confidence.
Perhaps the question should not focus on the difference between consultants and in-house PRs, but more on why it is crucial they can work together. In-house communications departments invariably don’t, and never will, have the depth of skill and creativity that consultancies have. The perpetual tightening of client budgets brings into focus the cost effectiveness of retaining consultancies to help deliver complex communications strategies. It is therefore massively important that within the in-house/consultancy relationship each of the parties focuses on the areas of shared commonality, and helps to work together to deliver campaigns that work, and work with flair.
In? Out? In? Out? Shake it all about ... having headed up in-house marketing and communication teams for years, I now run my own marketing agency. I believe we bring a blast of energy to companies, fresh eyes, new ideas, constant creativity and value for money.
Only occasionally are we commissioned instead of an in-house team. It’s much more the norm that we work alongside the existing marketing managers, bringing new resource and broader experience to help deliver a major campaign, conduct research, manage the PR or to set up a new business area. In essence, the client knows what they want and generally has ideas on how to go about it but they don’t have the time, and more often than not they also get bogged down in internal systems and politics. We can cut through all that.
Then there’s the other client. The one with the backlog on their desk, a complacent approach to strategy and a project they’ve been instructed to do by their board but they think it’s not going to work. Basically, they need to appoint a bright spark with running shoes and an ass for possible future kickings. Matthews Marketing has been around for just 18 months and so far we’ve had a variety of clients, projects and campaigns on all scales, which is exactly what enriches the offering and gives the consultants an edge – the diversity of experience, the wealth of contacts, the win–wins between clients, which makes joint initiatives so rewarding. No kickings, just a big kick from achieving great results.
Marketing can’t stand still. And neither can marketeers. I’ve worked with keen, clever, imaginative colleagues and I still think that in-house teams need to be shaken and stirred regularly. Yes, it’s great to be so focused on one company that you know it inside out and develop specialisms but you can also become too familiar with the product. Players need to move on every three years or so to re-motivate themselves, grow, make way for new blood to re-activate the team.
In my experience, in-house teams gain a lot from the right consultants. They catch a buzz from fresh insights and contacts, they are introduced to different methodologies, see progress at a faster rate because of the additional resource, they share knowledge. But in-house or consultancy, it all comes down to blending skills, mixing abilities, motivating people and ensuring ongoing enthusiasm for improving business through better marketing. So shake it all about and maintain that dynamism. That’s what it’s all about.
We all know that one of the unwritten rules in public relations is that the best exponents of the art have either worked or been trained to work in the media.
But can the same be said in terms of being a fully rounded professional if you have not experienced life on both sides of the consultancy/in-house “fence”?
Given my background, no prizes for guessing my position, but is it a difficult case to argue?
No. Our business is much, much more than just media relations – think of the definition of the profession, think of the audiences we need to communicate with and ask yourself how you can fully understand your clients’ requirements if you have never been in their shoes.
As head of PR & Sponsorship at Tennents and United Distillers and a press officer at Grampian Regional Council, I’ve launched Tennent’s-Lager-flavoured crisps, pioneered the pre-promotion of Tennent’s commercials, closed breweries, sales & marketing headquarters and schools, defended (!) the decision to remove girls from Tennent’s Lager cans, launched the new era of Scottish football and fetched a set of false teeth for a Councillor’s appearance on Grampian Television.
But I did not do it alone. Working in-house is all about being part of a team, understanding the communications requirements of everyone, from the MD to the guy on the shop floor and knowing the impact something in the paper or on television or radio makes on their lives. It is about developing a real passion for your brand.
In many ways you are a consultant for your internal audiences and in that sense it prepares you for life on the “outside”.
Without doubt, the best consultants therefore operate as part of the client’s team, they bridge the divide and they share the hurt or pride their work can generate on a daily basis. It is not enough to walk away and simply move onto something else.
There’s a myth I’d like to put to bed. I see now even more clearly a plain fact that was evident to me as an agency man – there is no secret formula that an agency brings to a client. The Secret Formula Fallacy is held to be true by company bosses and regularly – if tacitly – peddled by agency guys.
There are reasons why it makes sense to view agencies as wizards. Ironically, it is easier to convince a company board to spend money on a “guru” than to simply acquire a new resource. The guru promises quick results, huge impact and at no additional cost to internal resource.
All of this is, of course, wrong. Quick results tend to be soft results. A huge impact is very easily an irrelevant or inappropriate impact – just look at Health Secretary John Reid’s comments on smoking in the press this month. High impact indeed, because he tapped into what has become a national media obsession. But inappropriate.
And the more internal resource you allocate to forming a true partnership with your agency, the better your results in the long run. You can spend five grand a month on a retainer without allocating any management resource to it if you want. But you’ll get nothing for it. You get what you pay for, in the long run.
The long run. This is the biggest concept I have come to hold dear, now that I work inside one of the UK’s fastest growing companies. It is striking how tactically focused agencies are. No matter what they say, it’s true; they are in the main master tacticians, not master strategists.
I think this situation persists because what drives agencies is quick results to prove to their paymasters the value of what they do. The real fault for the tactical focus of the agencies therefore lies with the policies and practices of many client companies. Many large organisations believe it is essential to shake up their basket of agencies on a regular basis. This is because their policies on managing marketing agencies were written by marketers, who see constant change as essential to successful business. For the record, I think it is breathtakingly obvious that shaking up a roster because it says to do so in the company’s marketing guidelines is so much anathema to the very essence of marketing that it staggers me it still goes on. But there you go.
As a result, clients all too often treat their roster agencies like chicks in a nest, with only one worm to feed them at a time. Occasionally, the runt is cast aside for a new bigger-looking chick. I wonder if proper analysis of this situation would reveal a huge number of cuckoos appearing in nests?
I’ve only begun to understand the importance of a strategic viewpoint in marketing. I would like to create a culture where agencies working for bcwgroup are given enough information and breathing space to think long term. And I think anyone who has not worked on both sides of the agency–client divide is missing out. It’s amazing to see it from the other perspective.