Some Communications 20/20 Vision

Something dawned on me this week. I have now been working in public relations for 20 years.

No big deal perhaps. I’ve been called a veteran for a while, and the hair started to change to a more mature state some years ago now.

But it has been making me think back to what life in an agency was like back when I started. There are insights I share with colleagues quite regularly, typically of the kind that make me feel even older than I am, Many refer to how account executives today haven’t lived unless they’ve been confined to a production room with spray glue, mounting paper press clippings onto sheets of paper. Yes, paper.

Yet we digress. A lot has changed in the past 20 years in our industry. A lot is still changing. Much more will change in future.

So I thought I would commit a few memories to pixels, with a quick trip down memory lane and a look at how those elements of communications may be in the future, 20 years from now. 20 years back, 20 years forward. And as this weekend also marks the start of the English Premiership football season, predictions have been de rigueur this week. Here we go:

Clients: wanted media relations, wanted creative approaches to delivering stories and typically wanted to align themselves with whatever pop culture phenomenon was making the headlines that week. And in the UK in 1995, that was typically Britpop, Oasis vs Blur and how the internet might bring some changes to our world. But typically, what many clients wanted was an agency that would bring quality to its news dissemination and keep them in the news agenda more broadly. The size of the clippings pile was all-important.

Media: we’d seen the growth of mass media and the rise of many specialist publications. I was working in the technology sector – in the UK alone, there were seven print magazines covering Local Area Networks. National newspapers had just begun to put some content online and were trying to figure out how to make money from it without diminishing print ad revenues. TV was huge, still. Some geeky internet forums offered engagement with very specialist groups. Some seeds of media change had been planted, but few shoots had risen. Journalists still came out for lunch a lot, and few had email addresses. A business editor at the Daily Telegraph used to respond to my phone pitches by formal letter, sent by regular mail.

Content: words, words, more words, and 35 millimetre transparencies for photography. B-roll video edited onto VHS tape as samples, and parallel versions of broadcast quality tape. The couriers were kept very busy. Editorial calendar work often consisted of printing off web pages and faxing them. In short, content output was about news and features, and news and features, in the main. We did some great, memorable stories, but could see how richer, digital content might broaden our horizons.

Skills: many of the same skills that drive agency success today were requirements in 1995 too. Equally, knowing what content had genuine news appeal, and what didn’t, was highly-prized. Writing skills were critical, but more focused on ‘product-like’ output. But the vast majority was anchored around media relations, naturally. As a former news journalist having just jumped from the frantic melee of early 90s UK media, I had the good fortune of some useful assets.

Environment: varied widely. Many agency offices were open plan with director offices, but the cubicles and low partitions were common, and in many cases still are today. We saw offices begin to look more like newsrooms. A bigger issue by far though was dress: some agencies insisted on a suit and tie for men, the earlier pioneers would sanction smart trousers and an open-necked shirt. Baby steps towards what would soon become a casual workwear cultural revolution – though when I wear a suit these days, I’m as comfortable as I am in something more casual.

And so to the future.


Clients: so who knows what our industry will look like in 20 years’ time and specifically what clients will want? It’s more difficult to predict than the Premiership season. In my view, the role agencies play for clients and the value they provide will be tied to many things. What’s fundamental here is that communications has the enormous potential to be a more prominent and potent element of marketing, to be ever-better integrated and be a more important commercial asset. Many forces must combine to make that happen and much must be navigated, but for me the ability to prove the value of what we do as the world becomes ever-more digital will need to become the bedrock of how further communications sophistication develops.

Media: predicting media change is tough. Pace of change is one reason why. Who knows what it will look like? One thing I foresee is that the TV news as we know it will change its format markedly over the next decade in particular. Instant ‘just happened’ news cannot continue to be the domain of scheduled TV broadcasts. Those bulletins will become less like bulletins, and more analytical. True journalistic expertise will accordingly become more valued. Social media will become more personal and custom-fit, putting the individual in more control of how they view and engage. Experience will rise up the agenda to complement information and entertainment. Beyond that, we shall see.

Content: to a large degree, this will be driven by evolving media. And driven by the unchangeable fact that we watch things with our eyes and hear things with our ears. We’re likely to see greater sophistication of use of the moving image with editorial content, to both make storytelling richer and take advantage of the ease of distributing this content to better-understood audiences. Words will probably be even more diverse, with content not just largely about snackable news, social commentary and lengthier analysis, but in more surprising and diverse formats. Rather than just catching attention with what we say and when we say it, how we say it will become more prominent. How brands behave has long had the largest bearing on their reputation, but my guess is content forms will make that even more fertile ground for innovation, because of what can be produced, how it can spark interaction and how it can evolve. I’m looking forward to the unexpected.

Skills: such a huge question for our industry. And so difficult to predict. In the short term, the ability to bring breadth and depth to bear for clients, and to enable agency teams to develop and deliver both horizontally and vertically, will be where the action is. Again, charting and aligning with media change will be crucial. One thing I think won’t change, but will rise in prominence and make it more obvious who has such skills and who doesn’t, is that natural narrators will be central to how communications work is delivered. And they will need to understand even more about how value is created.

Environment: offices will become both more open plan and more buzzy, with peoples less tied to email and using their mouths more. Which in my view, is a good thing. Fashion predictions are, of course, more tricky. Maybe with all this other change surrounding us, the status quo of me leading advances in couture while the rest follow will at least be retained.

We shall see.