What is the future for the Public Relations Agency industry? The debate started across on Forbes, continued on FIR and we add our own suggestions from an interview taken for the source material for our book, “The Creative Agency of the Future“, being written now.

What is the future for the PR industry? We asked Dan Thornton from The Way of the Web, a 30-something specialist in digital – content creation, marketing and communities.

Questions: What are you doing differently in the past 2 years in….

Human resources

Since I’m now in charge I don’t have to attend meetings all day as I did in large companies – clients are based elsewhere in the country or world – or staff are freelancing for me evenings and weekends. The biggest challenge is to make sure everything is organised enough to run without having to try and herd everyone on skype for a big weekly formal meeting.

The biggest change for me is that I have no plans to take of offices and staff – it’s a waste of ground rent nowadays having 50 people in an office. The guiding principle of what I’m doing I have seen so many brilliant people trapped in a job somewhere but are scared of going freelance. I have the clients lined up and know how the workflow goes. Helping them make their own careers and taking a small % off the top.

I wanted to do something different in business – I have enough work coming in to enable me to choose clients a bit – I don’t advertise apart from blogging, social media and word-of-mouth from existing clients. I attract clients who are interesting and interested in doing something new – they aren’t scared by having a virtual agency and doing things remotely. Our clients – some are established brands (20-30 years) doing traditional services/products in B2B that haven’t changed what they do in years. Some have broken with more traditional agencies because they weren’t happy with the service – they can see that they can get all the things to do and more without having to traipse across London to meetings.

We can move at the client’s pace using Google Docs, Skype….

If I spot someone with a Nokia N900 I know they’re geeky and love databases and can do things I can’t. I do a lot of stuff with WordPress and I find these leading people and find where they meet up. I go to events like WordCamp – twitter is great for pestering people online. I take Twitter stalking to an extreme – i follow 4000 people, I use a lot of lists – journalists, WordPress, tech journalists. I use plugins for email that pull in social media information (Rapportive and previously I used Xobni). I use them to help my failing memory – the big thing for me was going to a conference and trying to search for them. These tools pull in linked in, Facebook and Twitter as a lightweight CRM service….

I take a look at the people I want to work with online – (clients or freelancers). Years ago I did that for companies and I applied the same principles. I enjoy working with companies that produce WordPress software – I find the developers who run those companies and I look out for what they say that has relevance to things I know or have seen or can chip in on. I keep a list of the worst spam examples – most are for SEO services. I remove the names of the companies.

For example, I’d love to work with Matt Mullenweg of Automatic – I look for people working in Marketing, SEO, PR – and then try to get into dialogue with them. It’s a slow process – I don’t expect an instant response – it is a 3-6-12 month gradual build. There is a great Forbes article about how to develop leads – the author was on US TV, reviewed in NY Times, but he got featured on Tim Ferriss’ blog and it rocketed his sales massively. 12 years later the author emailed Tim, he tweeted it and the author sold more from that than anything else. If I can get clients to wait a bit these results produce far more valuable leads. You don’t have to discount – you can charge full rate because these people know what they’re getting from you because they have followed you and know your thing.

Client management

I spend a lot of time hoping that freelancers deliver on time and warning them that they’ll lose the work if they don’t deliver.

I always have a couple of backups in mind – I find out their availability. I do this in LiquidPlanner they share the calendar and monitor freelancers’ availability.

Campaign organisation (job bags / project management)

I use a lot of post-it notes on my wall and the Trello the online equivalent. Some clients use it too – I like the visual representation. I also use a LiquidPlanner.com which is a more heavyweight planning tool. It is comprehensive but you need people to guide you – workflow, invoices, time tracking, filters by client, portals for clients.

I also use BaseCamp for some clients as well. I tend to buy [software] because it’s worth me having them for my team as well as I like to know how they work.

If you aren’t paying for something – you’re not the customer you’re the product. Paying for something you have a justification when something goes wrong to ask for help and you can rely on it.

Operations management

I devote more time to admin and it has to be properly structured time – I was a creative who did everything at the last minute – like invoicing especially as I felt guilty about charging about it!

The time planning is important – I have to sit down, figure it out, double check it and get someone else to sanity check it to get it right. I was conscious about putting things off.

I put things off like doing time tracking, estimating how long it takes a freelancer to complete something – using time tracking software – how long this blog post will take to write – click when you start and click when you finish. You can also estimate in advance and check.

Finance

I got a decent accountant in – who’s used to dealing with creative businesses and using online tools. FreshBooks – the best investment I ever made because it’s easy to use and understand and I can schedule things like invoices (clients on rolling contracts). I set it up once and it takes care of it! I only have to worry if they aren’t making payments.

Real estate

I mainly work from my dining room. Having a separate room for work is important – a place where you can lock yourself in.

IT infrastructure

Using the cloud services available I have not much in terms of overheads. We have no local server – I use physical hard drives which I keep offsite. I back up in 3 places – on the computer, physical copy and one in the cloud. I automate that backup. For staff – anything they work on for me is on a cloud service BaseCamp or Google Docs and I take responsibility for backing that up for me. Everything gets downloaded from Google docs.

Internal communications

It’s in email – very traditional. Many of them only interact with me as the hub for everything. Some prefer to contact me via Twitter especially for quick questions – and Facebook chat. I like Skype because you can save messages for later. I’m a bit more paranoid about FB messages not being savable.

Contracts

There’s a great video on Vimeo Mike Monteiro | F*ck You. Pay Me by the founder of Mule Design a talk with him and his lawyer.

I chose a lawyer with experience in online businesses and made sure I got a boiler plate NDA and a decent contract (I make minor changes myself).

Business development

About 12-18 months after starting the business the floodgates opened – I was being more active in the right places online and the word of mouth. I think it’s important to have your own blog (cobblers shoes syndrome it’s not as updated as it should be), Twitter is addictive for me. But getting into closed groups in LinkedIn and Facebook – the open ones are broad and repeat stuff… I got invited personally into groups that specialise in areas of industry or digital marketing that really gave me proper leads that I could follow up and secure. Because it’s only 50-100 people in these groups it’s easy to build your profile and get noticed.

There is increased competition – my competitors aren’t just local to Peterborough – there is crowd sourcing which is definitely an influence which affects us.

Knowledge management

I find some freelancers are brilliant at going the extra mile – making their work perfect for sending to the client. Others just do a data dump and I have to format it, correct spelling mistakes etc. I wrote a guide for SEO e.g. Link research and making a template that they can fill in.

I also do templates in SharePoint where they can provide the data and it automatically formats it.

Where do you go for information about how to improve the way you run your business?

I look at websites – I browse FastCompany. Mainly speaking to other agencies who are in a similar situation. I have an agency friend who is about 6 months ahead of us….he gives me some advice. I give him exchange of value in another way – he asks me about content and journalism and he tells me about business.

Learning:

One of the benefits of social media in particular is that I’ve been able to ask direct questions to a lot of people who are more established. So for example, after seeing Mark McGuinness write about financial matters for creative people, I commented on his blog and then got in touch via email, and he kindly recommended accountants and financial software. So I make sure whenever I see someone write about something relevant that I comment, tweet or email to find out more, and definitely pay attention to those that respond.

What’s changed:

One big thing that has definitely changed is the rate of communication. Years ago, when I was client side, I’d get a monthly report from an agency and maybe a call or two each month. Now clients expect updates constantly, whether that’s through email, or phone/Skype. There’s a fine line between being responsive enough, and spending 24/7 on the client that asks the most, so there’s a need to set realistic expectations and timelines, and then manage things so that the client gets the level of service they need without expecting to call at 3am and get an instant response (Although if it’s a real emergency, then they’ll obviously get it!).

One thing I’ve definitely been doing more is to set regular office hours, which I’m currently introducing to all my clients so that they know they’ll get a response within certain hours and won’t worry if their email isn’t answered immediately. That way we can get the big, focused tasks done whilst also responding to the smaller issues in a reasonable time-scale.