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Chris Dobson: PR has a fantastic opportunity to innovate and lead the entire communications debate

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chris dobsonPR Romania has invited Chris Dobson, Agency CEO & Entrepreneur and outgoing EMEA Head of Emerging Markets, Edelman, to talk about how innovation can transform public relations. The agencies of the future, Chris believes, have fantastic opportunities to innovate and lead the entire communications debate. But this will require agencies themselves to be bold, demanding, expansive, creative and pioneering.

How do you define innovation in the PR industry?

I would say anything that challenges the status quo can be described as innovative. In difficult market conditions, we all have clients demanding more – those agencies that can be nimble, flexible and creative in how they serve their clients will prosper. PR itself, in my view, has a fantastic opportunity to innovate and stake a major claim to lead the entire communications debate. This will require agencies themselves to be bold, demanding, expansive, creative and pioneering. Research and measurement are two areas where I expect to see continuing innovation impacting the sector.

PR agencies create innovative products for clients, but their modes of operation are standard and somehow outdated.  So what’s holding agencies back from innovative and risk-taking structural decisions?

I wouldn’t say that all modes of operation are outdated. Certainly, though, the traditional PR account team model, I think, is coming under increasing pressure to be as relevant and effective today as it has been.  Today’s agencies require a far broader range of skills and experience than ever before – particularly in the creative and digital spaces.  It’s not always easy, particularly for smaller agencies, to make these investments ahead of client demand – so I think many are adopting something of a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Usual titles like ‘Senior Account Manager’ and ‘Director’ are becoming less and less adequate at defining someone’s true job. How do you see the agency of the future regarding these roles?  

Personally, I see the successful agencies of the future expanding beyond the PR label, which I think has become restrictive in many clients’ minds. Successful agencies should and can be channel neutral – as channels and disciplines converge and compete, there is a great opportunity to raise engagements beyond ‘just’ PR. We are already seeing a new breed of integrated, multi-discipline agencies – I think clients now need to catch up and start thinking in this way. Account Managers and Directors will still be needed – but to be truly effective, their teams will need a much broader range of expertise.

In which areas are you seeing the most concrete industry innovation?

Probably within research, digital and measurement. I think the advent, for example, of location-based dialogues and network science into online marketing will be transformational. It moves us way beyond traditional monitoring and engagement practices, and will bring influencer-mapping and tracking by a whole host of ‘post-demographic’ measurements to the fore.  This will both challenge and inspire not just the PR sector but the wider marketing and media-buying industries.

Do you think that PR industry attract enough doers with entrepreneurial skills?

Well there is never enough, arguably, in any industry and I guess PR is no different.  Entrepreneurs can only thrive if given the freedom to bring their ideas into practice – not always easy in an agency environment, which is why many (myself included!) are choosing to break out on their own and mould a smaller, more nimble agency around their own vision of communications. I certainly don’t think there is a shortage within PR.

The future is laden with more complex technology and big ideas. Are the agencies ready to take on the next big, unknown thing?

Well, yes and no – the classic politician’s answer! I see a number of agencies of all sizes that are truly innovating and leading the surge into the science and data-driven disciplines that will become absolutely necessary over time. We are seeing a step-change in how many agencies approach staffing and recruitment, for example, to ensure they can deliver across a broader range of mandates. So on the whole, yes, I do believe we are trying – but clients need to trust and work with their agencies more to ensure these investments can be made with confidence.

Chris Dobson - Agency CEO & Entrepreneur; Outgoing EMEA Head of Emerging Markets, Edelman

Interview by Dana Oancea, PR Romania. Copyright PR Romania

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