3 Themes at Counselors Academy: Relationships, Inspiration, Profitability

Since I became editor of PR News about two-and-a-half years ago, I’ve heard a lot of good things from agency folks about the PRSA Counselors Academy Conference.  This week I finally went. As a first-timer at the Spring Conference in New Orleans, I learned many new things about the agency side of public relations, and was able to get a renewed sense of who the agency leaders are and what is on their minds. If I could sum up the prevailing mantra of the conference, it would be, “PR is a creative profession, but it’s still a business.” Here are some other observations on PR agency leaders and the “big ticket” issues they face:

Genuine Camaraderie: While many of the agencies represented here might be in competition with each other for business, there’s a strong sense among leadership of “we’re in this together.” Thus there was no hesitation to share best practices among agency peers. “We all help each other,” says Martin Waxman of Martin Waxman Communications and 2012 conference chair.

Entrepreneurial Spirit: Since many PR pros at the conference started their own agencies, they have very interesting and inspirational stories to tell. On May 7, Elise Mitchell, president and CEO of Mitchell Communications, chronicled her inspirational journey as an agency leader, likening it to a winding motorcycle ride (her personal passion). Her message of “uncertainty can mean great opportunity” clearly resonated with the audience.

Client Relationships Are Paramount: Not surprisingly, agencies put client relationships first. Yet it was said more than once that too much client care can hurt the bottom line. More than ever, agencies are getting inside clients’ heads, taking stock of the customer-centric companies like Zappos and beginning to apply similar best practices to their client relationships.

Employee Communications Are Key: Agency owners have a lot of worries, and one of the biggest is their staffs. Training, morale and work-life balance were all topics of conversation, with the prevailing question being, “How can I best enable my staff to succeed?” Because with their success comes business success.

It Is a Business: To compete with “the big dogs,” as Peppercom managing partner Steve Cody put it, midsize and smaller agencies must distinguish themselves through unique offerings, like  mobile communications services and expanded digital/social footprints.  Peppercom offers Comedy Experience workshops and launched Audience Experience, a new service to help companies better design their communications and marketing.

Yet with more of these offerings comes a need for improved business acumen. The end goal of achieving profitably was a repeating theme.  On that end, Rick Gould, managing partner at StevensGouldPincus, said 2011 agency revenues being tabulated for his company’s annual Best Practices Benchmarking study are coming in on the high side, which bodes well for the future of agencies.

—Scott Van Camp

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

  • http://www.gablepr.com Tom Gable

    Good summary of the attributes of this conference. On the camaraderie and collegiality of Counselors Academy and the spring conference, I can second the motion from a historical perspective (former chairman; been attending for some 25 years). The willingness of the members to share best practices and even horror stories on when agencies fail has been a hallmark of the conference. The counselors are dedicated to improving the professionals and the profession. I always go back from the conference with great ideas for advancing the quality and creativity of our client service. Thanks for giving the conference some recognition for their contributions.

    Tom Gable
    CEO, Gable PR, San Diego
    APR, PRSA Fellow

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