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SEPTEMBER 25, 2019 //     

The evolution of the communications agency model: Q&A with Scott Allison

By Ellis Reid and Scott Allison

As Allison+Partners turns 18, we sat down with CEO and founder Scott Allison to discuss the evolution of our agency, our offerings and the way we leverage senior leadership for client accounts. 

How has PR changed since the agency started in 2001? 

Scott: The evolution has been dramatic. In 2001, there was a much heavier emphasis on just media relations, generating press releases, media pitching, and placement. Earned media was a key focus. The lanes were much tighter. Now I joke that all the lanes have been taken out of the pool – it’s a mosh-pit where best ideas win, and it doesn’t matter where they come from. 

When we launched the business, there were a few things we wanted to differentiate in. One was how much we embraced media relations and earned media and continue to do so today. We took the view that every agency says they have great media contacts, but that’s not entirely true. We invested in setting up a separate media department, with folks who are heavily engaged in building those media relationships. 

Do you see that the way we use senior leaders’ time has changed? 

Scott: The idea of having a senior strategist on all accounts is a key differentiator for us. In this environment, you can’t get away with a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all communications programme. It needs some real thought-provoking insight to be successful. And we’re seeing more and more that clients are seeing the value that senior leadership can bring to the table. 

Is the way our clients behave driving this change and ultimately having a fundamental impact on these offerings? 

Scott: It’s a very competitive world; our clients are under a lot of strain to deliver results. The CMO or the chief comms officer is being held accountable for delivering results and making a true measurable impact on the business. The communications function is now seen as so important, these people are reporting directly to the CEO and have tremendous access to the board. It’s a trend that’s absolutely going to keep continuing. Our clients are craving strategy, and they’re also craving navigation through a very tumultuous communications world. This goes hand in hand with having a counterpart on the agency side who is really smart, strategic and has deep industry experience.  

Where do you see the services lie where we can offer the most value with our senior leadership team? 

Scott: One of the areas we continue to thrive in, and an area I personally lead a lot of, is media training – consistently training senior executives to prepare them for media interviews. That’s since evolved into a presentation offering. Many of our clients are doing major TEDtalks or keynote speeches, and we spend a lot of time working with senior executives to help them to get their storytelling down. 

Continuing on from that would be the strategic insight of messaging; how to build a story arc from early on and clearly putting down a communications roadmap.  

Another area is internal comms. We launched a new product last year called Workplace. And we are already working with several clients in the U.S., helping them with their internal communication to position them as fantastic employers. That also goes in issues and crisis management that we also do a lot on. 

So, we offer value on the strategic side at the forefront, prepping and getting clients engaged in moving forward. But you also have the reactive side. There could be a crisis or issues management piece and getting these two sides aligned can sometimes be a challenge. 

In a recent pitch, we presented a strategy using an American football analogy, explaining that you need to build your offense and your defense. And if you get mired in issues management or a crisis, usually the proactive piece completely falls apart. But we talked about an approach where you have both an offense and a defense to make sure the proactive approach never stops no matter what.  

So why is A+P best placed for providing these services over someone in a more traditional consulting role for instance? 

Scott: Being grounded in communications and PR has always given us the opportunity to see different insights for a company. It was then a very natural progression to move into more integrated offerings. Since then, we have continued to expand and invest in the company. 

We bought a film company; they are now doing world-class film production all around the world. We’ve built a research and analytics group from the ground up and invested heavily into those platforms. We’ve brought in creative talent; people that really understand content and are well-versed in the social media aspect. Then we have people who have come from the ad and planning world to ensure we have all the pieces of the puzzle available to our clients.  

There is an incredibly rich diversity of experience within the agency. If you look at a lot of the hires we’ve made over the last two years, a number of them come from the advertising or research sector, which is vastly different from 18 years ago when we were looking at former journalists to form the backbone of the company.  

We also see the global element being extremely important, having local talent all over the world in our 30 offices. We are increasingly going after big global brands. And what we find is once we start working with them and build a trusted relationship, we can grow into other markets. Underwriters Laboratory is a great example of this. We’ve worked with them for almost seven years, and they now work with 20 different offices throughout the A+P network.  

Why should clients choose A+P overtaking these skills in-house? 

Scott: Agencies are incredibly well-positioned because we can deliver this expertise in all the things we have invested in. We have a production company, animation studios in Thailand and a very sophisticated offering in San Francisco. But how do you replicate that in-house? Bringing in a freelance videographer is great, but you won’t be able to deliver what we can deliver. Taking these skills in-house you have a very myopic view. As an outside observer, we see ourselves as someone that has to give very candid, sometimes critical feedback that has to be heard at the highest levels.  

This is a golden era for communications agencies.  

Looking to the next 18 years, what can we expect? 

Scott: 18 years can be a lifetime. The speed of change is being driven by technology as well as how the media landscape has collapsed in many ways and rebuilt itself in other ways. The impact of AI and data analytics and similar areas are going to advance at the speed of sound. It’s going to be difficult for some of the smaller agencies to keep up with this, so we have been investing back in the business to prepare us for these changes.  

For us, we’ll continue to grow. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet. We represent some of the world’s best brands, but it will be up to us and our leadership team to not take our eye off the ball.

We need to focus on what got us here; hiring great people, empowering people to be entrepreneurial and grow their careers and keep an eye on the technology and investments to know what will truly be impactful.  

 

Ellis Reid is a senior account director in Allison+Partners’ London office. 

 

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