MIAMI—The agency of the future—in public relations and other communications disciplines—will think less about channels, such as digital and social media, and more about a holistic approach that integrates channels and services and helps drive both brands and corporate reputation, according to participants in The Agency of the Future panel at the Global Public Relations Summit in Miami this week.

Chaired by Jim Nail, vice president and principal analyst of Forrester International, the panel began with a discussion of the recent transformation at GolinHarris, an international agency that has “been around since the 50s and doing things more or less the same way for 60 years,” in the words of chief executive Fred Cook.

“If you were starting an agency this day you wouldn’t do it this way,” said Cook. “So many things have changed in our world: the media landscape, the digital element. But none of the agencies were changing to adapt to it, and that’s what drove us forward.”

Cook said that clients increasingly wanted three things—deep insights, big creative ideas, and engagement across multiple platforms—that their current agencies were not delivering. Indeed, Forrester’s research, he claimed, suggested that “what our clients wanted the most they didn’t think PR agencies were that great at.”

Forrester research, at the time, showed that clients gave public relations firms particularly low marks when it came to big, strategic ideas.

But Cook did concede that one of the things that drove Golin’s transformation was the changing competitive landscape, and in particular the increasing frequency with which the firm found itself competing with digital specialist firms.

“We found ourselves competing with digital firms,” says Cook. “We had a level of understanding, but they had a technological expertise we did not, and that made me a little nervous. We needed that expertise, not just in a few people but in all our people.”

R/GA, which positions itself as “the agency for the digital age,” was one of those firms, and its chief growth officer Barry Wacksman suggests that new technologies were changing not only the communications landscape but also the business landscape.

“Our clients’ fundamental business is transforming. Not just the way they communicate but their entire businesses. They grew by adding more and more brands to their formulas to dominate a category, like Coca-Cola, using mass media as the driving force. That’s how companies grew. But those markets were becoming commoditized, particularly in the US and Western Europe, so all their growth was coming from emerging markets.”

But a new generation of companies is now growing a different way. “Apple is thinking about new ways to sell more things to the same customer. It wasn’t about segmentation; it was about having digital services at scale so millions of people were using the same thing at the same time. It’s a fundamentally different strategy.”

But if digital technology has been driving both client strategy and agency adaptation, agencies will need to look beyond new media channels if they are to deliver the kind of integrated solutions clients are looking for.

“The most interesting development in terms of integration is not about channels like digital, it’s about services,” said Tom Beckmann, creative director at Swedish firm Prime. “We have divided our agency into marketing communications, corporate communications and public affairs. That’s not unusual, but we recognized that these areas were bleeding into each other and you need a deep understanding of the consumer mindset and of societal issues in order to create an integrated campaign.”

Fraser Hardie, founder and senior partner at UK firm Blue Rubicon, agreed. “You can obsess over channels and the perfect mix of channels, but reputations are managed holistically and brands are managed holistically and it’s about genuine engagement across the right mix of channels,” he told Summit attendees.

Among the keys to success in the agency business:
• “It’s about doing things that are so innovative that they get people to talk about, write about and share ideas about these products and services,” says Wacksman. “It’s all about earned media.”
• “Our industry is shifting from creating awareness that generates value to be about creating value that generates awareness,” says Beckmann. “Digital is not about technology, it’s about content. Our industry should be more self-confident about digital because it’s not about how you say it, it’s about what you say.”
• “One of the things that is changing—I think BP helped—is that there is a growing understanding at the top of businesses that reputation risk attaches itself to the leaders of businesses, and so reputation management has risen up the agenda quite quickly as a result of that,” says Hardie.