Arun Sudhaman 30 Nov 2012 // 2:40PM GMT
Bite’s new dawn, it should be said, follows a fairly dark night, thanks to the revelation that almost £2m was personally embezzled by a ‘trusted’ former member of the firm’s finance team. As the agency works to recoup its lost money, it can take some solace in this week’s announcement that it is merging with sister Next Fifteen firm Bourne. For a few years now, Bite has exhibited a restlessness that probably bodes well for its future, notably through its acquisition of a trio of digital operations in Hong Kong: OneXeno, ILS and Red Bricks Media’s search team. Purchases like these, though, remain the exception rather than the rule in the PR industry. Slowly but surely, that trend is changing, as public relations firms recognise the importance of broadening their skill set, and digital players perhaps realise that this may well be the high water mark for specialist interactive agencies. Edelman, for example, has bought numerous digital businesses, while firms such as GolinHarris and WCG have made similar investments. Bite’s merger with Bourne takes these efforts one step further by attempting to marry both teams and create a new type of agency. Former New Media Age editor Justin Pearse joined Bite earlier this year as head of innovation and, in this video, notes that many unions of this nature often end poorly, thanks to the typical practice of ‘bolting-on’ a digital practice or hiring a specialist to head a separate unit. It is not surprising that Pearse thinks Bite will be different, but there is something to his assertion that the only way the industry can change is through a “fundamental restructuring” of the way it works. Bite hopes that its integration with Bourne will achieve this goal by, essentially, reshaping its model rather than just tinkering with it. I would not argue with Pearse’s claim that dramatic transformation is necessary, but I would suggest that this type of merger represents just one route to this goal. Similarly, I think that acquisition, bolt-ons, collaborations, even a straightforward policy of hiring different skills, can all accomplish this objective, provided that they are backed by the right mindset and, importantly, enough political will from the very top. Indeed, the more important factor may not be the method by which an agency attempts to change, but the culture that surrounds those efforts. In Bite’s case it has chosen a fairly complex endeavour, because the integration of a PR agency with a digital one is no easy task, given the differences in operating model, staff profiles and working practices. The bravery is laudable, yet it is equally clear that the venture is being led by senior management. The culture of the agency (thanks in part to the investments it has made in recent years) will not necessarily scupper the effort. Not every agency would be as comfortable with this manner of metamorphosis. But that does not rule out their chances of eventually becoming the kind of multidisciplinary operation that fulfils the true potential of public relations. It is worth noting, for example, that [email protected] has grown to be one of the strongest PR/digital hybrids by, largely, hiring specialist skills and ensuring that they are effectively integrated across the whole group. It is a strategy that makes sense for a large firm that already has multiple entry points into clients' marcomms and digital budgets. Other agencies, as Bite has concluded, require more radical change. Bite CEO Andy Cunningham likes to say that PR firms exist to help their clients “sell more stuff”. I’d respectfully suggest a broader mandate, to improve business performance and profitability. Regardless, Bite’s move indicates a clear idea of how the industry is evolving, and how the agency hopes to capitalise on these trends. For Bite and its like-minded peers, it is probably safe to assume that fortune will favour the brave.