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 John Kearon, Chief Juicer at Brain Juicer (who have one of the coolest websites around).

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

Human resources

We do not want an HR department – this is a conscious, deliberate decision which started off when we were small. We think this is a bad idea because the HR ways and approaches are self-defeating. We have taken our inspiration from Dan Pink’s book, “Drive”. It’s seminal and a beautiful articulation of problems of any workplace not just an agency. We bribe people to do dull work too much of the time and wouldn’t it be wonderful if you place of work and a culture where most of the people get a real buzz from doing what they do. His prescription is flow or drive which comes from having a purpose – you do have to have a role that is purposeful – you want to do it. And the mastery is training and developing and challenging yourself to be master of it and autonomy and you feel you have control over your life. Everyone once a year on their review form they try to write out what would be their ideal job – not necessarily in our agency – be brave. If you want to sail round the world, we may be able to accommodate it; you never know.

when you get to 100 staff you have job descriptions and you write out formally new roles the business needs and you put that out as recruitment and you are bending talent to the company’s needs. Plausible, understandable and sensible. But that’s got a lot to do why you can take talented people and get less out of them than when they are running their own business. So we are bending the business to what people want to do.

Only 20% of the staff have taken the risk of saying what they would like to do. Once you raise your hand it’s hard to go back, it’s hard to go back – its high stakes if you don’t get it you will probably leave. In every case when they’ve done it we have found a way to do it. E.g. Orlando Wood our most successful account manager who wanted to be full time Labs R&D. We phased his transition over a year. Conrad in our Dutch office wanted to be an ex-pat and go and help the China or Brazil office succeed so we sent him to China and he’s done a great job there – fantastically successful.

It’s been massively rewarding – every time you do it you end up with the most productive, happy employees.

Autonomy – we introduced results-oriented workplace (ROW) – it doesn’t matter when or where the work gets done, as long as the work gets done. If you need to take a morning off to take a delivery, then work from home. You have to be sensitive to your team e.g. if they need to gather, arrange it. It gives people control over their lives. Agency life can be full on and if you feel you have to show your face in the office just because it gets miserable, quickly.

Mastery – we introduced a Brainjuicer Academy – create a creative training option. “Juicy Beginnings” when new people join the company we wait until we have a room full and we bring them all to London for a week and I spend time with them to share the history and what we’re all about – it’s all different levels of seniority and departments. It started off with too much content – now it has more socialising and people-related stuff and less content. Nobody remembers all the processes we try to teach. It’s worth every penny.

We also created our own storytelling course – we create content because regular training courses are dull and ‘shite’. We tried them the MRS courses. We tried a distance learning course with the University of Georgia in US – it was dull as ditchwater and would put you off market research for life. We are trying to break the rule send do things differently so it fits us and it’s more interesting and inspiring. We do a lot of webinar work – external and internal ones. They are often the same content – just different audience. GoToMeeting – it’s just brilliant.

If you find a great course – just let us know e.g. China Team and India they are really bad presenters – in the school system nobody presents anything to anyone. In school you sit at your desk and the teachers teach. ToastMasters – we paid for their subscriptions.

We are trying to change the nature of bonuses – it’s not a city culture extreme but it’s important. As Dan Pink points out it becomes “if this… then” situation. All of the academic experiments show clearly that all that does is encourage short term thinking, cheating and non-co-operation. He advocates moving to a “now..that” rewards system. Increase the basic salary so the package including holidays everyone is generally happy with. On top of that do spot rewards when good things happen. It’s not just monetary. We introduced “Hidden Heroes” anyone in the business can nominate anyone else and they send it to [email protected] it comes to me and the management team. Once a quarter I send out an email using the words the nominee wrote – they get a token a gift on their desk. It’s been wildly successful. If people win an award we send them out to the theatre or a meal. We say the same to our investors – the priority for money is our staff; second we have to deliver to our investors and third is sharing out the profits. It becomes a now..that. It’s definitely shifted.

Staff satisfaction – we have our own tool “Satis-Traction”. It’s emotion – how do you feel about working here and why. Tell us every quarter and what would you do to improve it. It’s brutal – when you can actually express what people are feeling. People do – if they are pissed off they say really quickly. We are totally transparent everyone gets to see the answers. It’s anonymous but you can see which office said it. I encourage transparency. We don’t always agree, just because they complain.

With multiple offices – people get paranoid about what’s happening at HQ. We use email – probably too much we have groups, labs, marketing, operations, hidden heroes. We have internal newsletter Juicy news. Internal HR newsletter called Drive which shares latest courses people joining / had babies.

Client management

The big change is we, like a lot of agencies, very proudly mention our clients by name. We try to manage them with someone responsible worldwide for each brand – it didn’t work at all. We don’t have Unilever as a client – we have a person who works in Milan who likes what we do – that’s our client. It’s a statement of the obvious, they are individuals – we are a challenger brand and we have to find advocates who buy into what we are doing. We manage the relationship by individual rather than company. BMI – we grade each individual on the Bravery, Maverick they are they Influential in the business. This gives a composite score of max 30 – 0-10 on each. We highlight those client individuals who are most important and influential to us and try to consciously manage those people. We try to reward them, support them and its working. The correlation with business with high BMI is strong.

We try to lock onto helping that person’s career. The best way is not to be a technician but to realise it’s about business advantage. Our tag line “turning human understanding into business advantage” that’s the business we are really in.

Operations management

We hired a COO three years ago – Alex Batchelor. He has formalised the operations – we decided I was responsible for growth and he was responsible for profit. There’s always a tension between the two things – acknowledge that and have it at the top so we can make the compromises necessary.

Finance

Everything is central – nothing is done locally. I recommend this for international. It’s so tempting as a small agency to get on with the work and ignore things like T&Cs that don’t get signed properly by the client’s team. If you aren’t in the system there are problems. You must be formally set up – their payment terms may be outrageous – 60 or 90 days but you will be paid. If you don’t force the account teams not to start the project until you are in the system.

When do you recognise revenue? It’s tempting to do this the moment a project is commissioned…. that can be dangerous. We are extreme we don’t do it until the project is complete and sent the client our formal email – are you happy? We don’t invoice until they say they are happy with the work.

Real estate

We always start with one person in their own home – when they start recruiting it tends to be serviced office or a corner in an ad agency. It’s nicer to share a vibrant office. When you have 7/8 staff you can have your own office.

IT infrastructure

It’s the second biggest investment after people. A bit like finance we have deliberately spent what seems an eye-watering amount on it. We have increased the amount by a factor of 100% we spend per person. And boy does it pay dividends. It only gets noticed when it’s bad or things go wrong. Success is when everything generally works.

People can swap out a laptop if it’s broken, get a new phone if they lose it. They have mobile cards in their laptops; we buy big internet pipes for fast connections and overnight synchronisation. People feel they are working with good gear.

We cannot get our filing system to replicate so there’s a robust up to date store on everyone’s server, computer and laptop round the world. Windows is the only way of doing it now.

We looked at Salesforce.com – managing accounts we had a look at it and decided creative use of Outlook is just as good.

Internal communications

Only these email groups. Stronger emphasis on getting people together as often as possible. We swap people around the offices. Face time is important. We don’t skimp on air fares.

Contracts

We are formal – we agree up front and stick to it.

Business development

No big changes. We win awards, we write papers, and we do webinars. We’ve always done conferences. We have never ever paid to exhibit, attend or present at any conference anywhere. We create our own conferences. We introduced book clubs – senior clients are interested.

Knowledge management

Juicy Beginnings, a filing system that helps people navigate the important stuff from biz dev to client management. The website helps people learn and study email, sharing news and people talking to each other. We encourage friendly neighbours – can anyone help me with…. cases studies on….

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

I am not much impressed with the ways companies are run – formal training isn’t that good. I read books, try to be aware of what might make it work for us. The Motley Fool presented at our interims today. They have an amazing culture and we stole some of their stuff – we share war stories. We have learnt from them.