Agency lessons from startup land

Since leaving the world of traditional PR agencies, I’ve seen the startup world from nearly all angles now: writer, in house at a scaleup, my own agency, head of comms at a Venture Capital (VC) —  and the more distance you gain from the agency community, the more clearly its foibles reveal themselves.

Considering everything I’ve learned working closely with the stakeholders of this world, I think there are some clear lessons for the agency industry.

I want to talk through how agency owners can learn from the culture of key ecosystem players to build something that works smarter and harder.

Investors

Just like a VC, agencies invest their central resource in other businesses, to increase the depth of that resource for future growth.

For a good agency, that pool looks something like this:

Team: rewarding professional development, satisfaction and growth

Portfolio: a growing range of strong examples, attracting more opportunities

Brand: a reputation for working with truly great companies

Cash: the best possible profit margin

Cash obviously keeps you alive — but if you don’t really achieve momentum on the other three, you aren’t developing an engine that can sustain value for the long term. In many ways, getting that cash in the bank builds a more resilient system to be able to pursue the more important priorities.

And yet, how often do agencies place bets that threaten these priorities for trivial financial return?

Every time they take on a mediocre new client for a few grand in the forecast, they are leveraging a true cost for the team, brand and potential to attract future clients. You not only frustrate and waste the time of talented people, you undermine their interest in your agency and their job at the same time.

Choosing the clients you work with is possibly the most important and meaningful investment you are making for the future of your business. Your fates are linked. It matters.

I think this happens for a simple reason: in common with some investment firms, often agencies are founded with no real intent or purpose but to make money and grow. Then they then eventually sold to larger agencies or holding companies who continue that dearth of true culture.

Now, this isn’t where I ricochet into some idea that all agencies should be originators of culture and we should all be artists. It’s simpler than that: agencies should be able to articulate exactly what their purpose is, just like they often spend time defining it for clients.

And that brings them closer to a second group in the startup world — entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs

So much of the agency ‘experience’ involves representing the things that others create. You are channeling their voice, you are communicating their work — but they are the builders, not you.

One of the great satisfactions of running your own agency is the opportunity to truly build something. You can supersede the flawed systems and approach of ‘business as usual’.

And most crucially, you can establish *why* the world needs another PR agency. In fact, I think one of the most important questions to ask yourself is: why do this, instead of anything else?

In our case, we work almost exclusively with ‘unsexy’ tech scaleups at Series A/ B, and always aiming to strategically integrate owned, earned, paid and shared to be more than the sum of their parts. This, to me, is where PR becomes true Comms.

So, the reason we exist is simple: In a noisy world, even if you have a better product/ business/ technology, you can still lose out to a competitor who shouts about it more effectively. We believe that if you can help founders articulate the true strength of their business accurately, success will follow.

Our mission is to reconsider and re-engineer the ways Comms can be done, to achieve this. Ideas that realign the incentives, like Augur Unbound and Augur Wir, which step toward not charging for media relations. Or Augur Edits, a way for clients to solicit pitches and story ideas from world class journalists.

If you don’t define your reason to be, beyond ‘making money’, that’s when you start to throw your most important resource under the bus. That’s why so many agency people are working on boring campaigns, with pointless brands, humouring irritating client contacts for 50+ hour weeks.

And ultimately, this comes down to leadership. If you’re going to build an agency, and ask people to give you years of their life to support it, the least you can do is give them a reason.

Not just for them, but for the future of you and your business too.

Max Tatton-Brown is founder and MD of Augur Communications.

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

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