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 James Heaton, President and Creative Director at Tronvig Group.

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

Human resources

We are now systematically working on issues of alignment so that everyone has regular sessions with their direct reports and can discuss issues to their work and the company’s vision, mission and values. We’ve taken to heart The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. Before, we didn’t have a formal process for that – it’s the change from operating on an ad hoc basis to having a similar set of principles that everyone sees, believes in and actively tries to apply to their day-to-day activities. That is part of maturing as a business.

We have a couple of golden questions we use – we need to develop these for our clients, but we already have them for prospective employees.

One is the “box of chocolates” question. We ask them about how they would eat a box of chocolates where they know all the different flavours, and which ones they like and don’t like. We ask what order they would eat them in. Because they don’t know why we’re asking this they generally they tell the truth.

Are they the personality that gets the things they don’t like to do out of the way first? It’s a critical characteristic for people who can get the job done.

Client management

As part of our growth process we have to transition away from “me” as the owner being the primary client service person to our system having a bigger role in this function. We’ve introduced software (AtTask) that facilitates status updates, tracking, project management and client communications. The client has access to the project status and appropriate communications.

Operations management

This is a transition from me spending all my time working “in” the business to me now spending more time working “on” the business. Systems, processes, HR improvements, alignment issues as opposed to just doing the work for our clients. I now spend about 10% of my time on this. It should be 25%. I also still have to sell, of course.

Finance

Improved systems – we gave up doing it ourselves, and hired external bookkeepers and accountants. We haven’t integrated this with AtTask yet. Mostly it’s been an issue of more efficient billing, better client understanding of the contract (so payment isn’t an issue).

Real estate

We moved from Madison Avenue to DUMBO – New York’s “Digital District.” It’s in Brooklyn where about 60 digital agencies have collected after having decamped from Manhattan. The “Digital District” wasn’t planned, it just happened. Instead of having a really expensive floor in a building, now we have a less expensive and more unusual space with lots of windows in a post-industrial district – everybody likes it much better.

IT infrastructure

We are doing more stuff in the cloud. We only have one server. Our client work—our creative work—is managed and stored locally. We use Google Docs and AtTask. We dispensed with BaseCamp.

Internal communications

Since we are under 15 people (that’s the magic number for internal communications) we are still in an open office with no walls. We use Skype for communication with our overseas resources. Project related communications are all done through AtTask – non-project related stuff is done through email and meetings. We can still get everyone into a room and we do this twice a week. There’s a Monday morning project review / problem-solving meeting, and at the end of the week internal development (self-improvement) meeting which can be anything from sharing new ideas & best practices to working on refining our vision statement.

Contracts

We try and make gradual improvements. We have a short, friendly client contract.

Business development

We have an ideal client profile checklist so we can screen clients to be sure we are a match. Our initial list was full of things like budget for marketing and ability to pay. We revised it now so it’s really about who the people are that we’re dealing with. What’s important is the attitude of those people, and the fact that they’re able to see the bigger picture – that they aren’t petty, shortsighted and mean. Personal attributes have become more significant. We choose people who share our vision and who we really want to work with as human beings, rather than just those who are financially well-endowed or high profile. It’s essential that they have an excellent product or service, but most importantly, they must value our work and be in it for the benefit of the greater good – not just to cover their butts.

We find the answers out as we get to know them in meetings, and in conversations before and after pitch presentations. Then we review their score before we issue a contract. One of my associates is also very good at reading people.

The biggest change for us is the role of the company blog. Before the blog we got clients pretty much entirely through existing business referrals, word-of-mouth, and direct networking. Because of the blog we are now getting clients through other avenues that are not directly related to people I know or that our clients know. This is new. People come to us from more distant connections – usually there is still some connection. The degrees of separation though are greater – they don’t have to have met me. The blog serves as a proxy for meeting me and hearing what I have to say. This is a surprise – it wasn’t what we thought the blog would do. We have had it for 2 and a half years.

In the blog I write about problems and situations that come up for our clients, but I write about them in abstract terms giving examples that aren’t using them as examples! When I have to explain something to a client, that’s usually great source material for a post. They aren’t the only ones who need that information. When I write an argument or even a pitch, I often cite posts or refer to them as part of my argument.

Knowledge management

We are trying to build up our knowledge and lock it into our systems. We are constantly inventing new things, and as we invent them we try to incorporate them into our process. So we are using AtTask to build that into a system that is fully articulated and has associated hours, tasks and output. This becomes a comprehensive document which we can use in its entirety if the budget is there, or in a more stripped-down version. We are trying to make everything a system. We use the saying, “People don’t fail, systems do”. Partly the project concluding analysis, client questionnaire and case study are intended for this purpose.

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

We brought on an experienced business coach who has taken many other businesses from where we are now up to the place we want to be. He has deep expertise and saw enough in us to structure his compensation around our collective success.

We meet every two weeks and have a strict structure. He gives us assignments constantly. We have self-designed rewards and punishments that push us to do all the things required prior to each session. Because we have an open management structure these meetings include all the key staff.

We make up the punishments and rewards ourselves – one example of a punishment for a former client of his was during 2004 Bush elections, she was a life-long Democrat and her punishment for not doing what she had agreed to do was to give $100 cash to the coach, which he’d in turn donate to the Bush reelection campaign. That made her cry.