When someone asked me recently why was I leaving my job as a CEO to start up my own agency with the economy the way it is, I felt like it was 2001 all over again.
I first cut my teeth in PR during the dotcom boom, working in-house in a company that went from zero to 200 people in the space of two years. It was an exciting time to be doing PR and an exciting place to work. As well as the experience of working in a fast-growing business, I saw how working in a tech startup can create an innovation-friendly environment and how that fosters a winning attitude and attracts business.
In 2001 I started my agency-side PR journey. This was at the time the tech bubble burst, and I was working purely with tech clients. Those were also tough economic times, but the agency I worked in was a specialist and they went out of their way to deliver quality work from a quality team.
Since then I have had the good fortune to work in a variety of roles in agencies across all sectors and in PR, full service, digital and social media firms. For the last 10 years I have also experienced the disruption happening to the media landscape first hand, as a blogger and early adopter of most digital technologies that have emerged. My job has become as much digital and social media advisor as it has been PR and communications advisor.
I have always had a fire burning inside me to start up my own business and create something that makes a difference doing what I love. I profoundly believe that the agency model is in need of disruption. Agencies as they look right now just aren’t set up right. This has all been brought about by the changes in the media landscape itself, through social media’s effect on the way brands communicate, and the way we as consumers talk, listen and organise ourselves.
There are three big problems that need fixing. These are the three ways that my new agency is looking to remedy the problems with how agencies operate:
Social media expertise is wielded in a terribly awkward manner right now by agencies. They simply aren’t developing quickly enough to manage this new world we live in. Social media’s impact has brought changes that companies and agencies struggle to cope with in the old model.
Agencies are pyramids. The people with experience at the top are outnumbered by the account managers and executives at the bottom, usually with the social media specialism awkwardly slotted in by one of three ways (see figs 1-3 above, see here for an explanation of these three models).
What’s needed it a T-Shaped business with the pyramid turned on its head (fig 4), where the consultants all have a deep specialism in social media and a broader set of specialisms in complementary areas such as design, crisis management or vertical sector, for example. This is the only way an agency can scale to meet the needs of all its clients with truly great social media expertise and innovation happening throughout the business.
2. Innovation and the tech startup mentality
Agencies tend not to create special structures to foster innovation, as it clashes with their billable hours model. If you look around other industries, innovation comes either from subsidised R&D teams in large organisations, or from a different way of working in more of a tech startup mentality.
I love the tech startup way. It’s one of the reasons Battenhall is based in London’s Tech City. I wanted us to absorb that way of working. Battenhall’s approach is to encourage testing, experimentation and hacking, to coin a tech term, on work time. This is done through time and technology allowances, but above all, through encouragement from all colleagues. This model works really well and I am surprised more agencies don't already do it.
3. Creating meaning
I have yet to meet a colleague in our industry who turns up to work just for the money. We all want to make a difference at the end of the day, and so while all the usual agency structure, remuneration and perks are key, having a deeper meaning behind what we do is the thing that will get us out of bed every day.
At Battenhall our way of doing this is by making all employees partners in the firm, so they share in the profits, but also have a say in the running of the business. Everyone comes to the AGM and big meetings to help with decision-making. We also dedicate work time to good causes so that the workload for consultants is more balanced.
Above all though, the deeper sense of meaning I hope we all have is the drive to bring change to the communications industry and disrupt the old way by creating the next great agency. A way we know is not able to cope with the social media economy we live in.
Drew Benvie is the founder of Battenhall.