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Why senior PR guys leave big agencies

While churn in agencies have always been the norm, several senior public relations agency professionals tell Marketing why the larger agency models didn’t work for them.

1. Too much process killing innovation

Most large agencies are parts of listed companies, leading to what some have called a short-term obsession with targets, and in turn, also a short term view on productivity, people and training.

“Often you hear that senior agency staff are encouraged to run their team / practice / project as if it was their own company – but the reality is you hardly have any freedom to execute it that way as you are still stuck in a complex organisation that traditionally is mainly focused on stability and risk-aversion,” said Lars Voedisch, founder of PRecious Communications, who has experience at several larger network agencies.

2. Less actual time with the client and PR

Many times, big agencies are hired not only for their ability to execute, but especially for the promise of strategic council and insights provided by senior consultants. However, several professionals have lamented that in reality senior consultants get less time with the client.

“The is due to the rigid staggered hourly rate charging roster, if a director level or above spends too much time with a client, the shown profitability of the account goes down and a finance director would run after them shouting “over-servicing” repeatedly,” Voedisch added.

Bob Pickard, chairman, Asia Pacific, Huntsworth echoed similar views.

“There’s a cruel irony that many rising executives experience the hard way inside conglomerate firms when they realise that the very assets that made them senior in the first place – consulting savvy, new business prowess, amazing client service – became much harder to actually do in rigid bureaucracies where stultifying process and administrative mania grind everyone down,” Pickard said.

Pickard, who has held leading roles in several large agencies, said that what might disappoint the most is that those who eventually rise to senior roles in the firm may not be most talented at leadership as well.

3. Bogged down by reporting lines to global

Others have highlighted their reporting lines to global headquarters as a hindrance.

A former agency lead who spoke on conditions of anonymity said because of having to run even the minutest detail through several levels at the regional or HQ level, large agency managers struggle  to make the changes they need to make to adapt the agency and align it with local market dynamics.

“It makes it difficult also to provide relief where it may be needed across the business – like hiring staff to alleviate pressure when you are investing in a client or needing to give someone an out of line pay raise,” he added.

Pickard said it depends on the firm. “The ones who ‘get it’ and provide line-of-sight management latitude with empowered senior leaders on the front lines of the business, in this region, are the ones where the really best people want to work,” he said.

On the other hand, firms with a repelling effect on talent acquisition and retention are the ones that put Asia under ‘direct rule’ from global HQ, he added:

Where the solution to just about every problem seems to involve putting Westerners on planes to Asia rather than empowering the Asian leadership.

He opined that the companies that let the Asian leadership loom large in the global enterprise, “and that means proportionate seats on the executive committee and shares of the stock” seem to thrive, compared to the ones where Asia is kept “under the thumb of remote corporate masters.”

4. But there are benefits too

On the other hand, one ex-senior level PR professional who has also left a larger agency for a more independent outfit, said that he disagreed with the idea that it was limiting to lead at a larger shop.

“I tend to disagree that your wings are clipped working in a big agency as it is in a bigger outfit that you have the resources and budget to experiment new business ideas and campaigns. In a smaller agency, you may not have the resources to try new things, e.g. hire a small unit of people to do social media. As a senior leader in a big agency, you need to be able to work the system in order to experiment,” added the professional.

He added that a bigger agency will always come with more processes, bureaucracy and even politics, and it is merely part of the business that some senior folks may embrace these as part of their work, but some may not.

“At the end of the day, I think senior people should find a configuration where they can be the best they can be: where they have freedom to innovate, can avoid wasting time on nonsense, enjoy the ability to act quickly and can make decisions at the client-facing coalface of the business,” said Pickard.

“Whether your agency is big or small, if the people you work with share your passion for building the firm with their own hands and hearts – intelligent and fun colleagues who you like, respect, and trust – then that’s probably the right firm for you,” Pickard concluded.


Elizabeth Low
Deputy Editor
Marketing Magazine Singapore

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