Surekha Ragavan
Sep 12, 2019

The communication problem in the communications industry

In-house comms heads open up about how PR agencies should communicate more effectively with them.

The communication problem in the communications industry

Handling multiple time-sensitive accounts at once is a tricky feat for PR agencies, and can often lead to communication breakdowns. But do in-house teams feel that they’re at the brunt of this problem?

At a recent panel by PRCA Southeast Asia in Singapore, three brand heads and one agency head sat down to debate common communication problems around the client-agency relationship, and how to go about fixing them.

You’re speaking my language

To optimise client-agency relationships, semantics are everything, according to Jeremy Seow, Singapore CEO of WE Communications.

“We all speak English but we don’t speak the same operating language. I think it’s really important when the words ‘marketing’ and ‘content’ means different things in an agency world and on the client side,” he said. 

“A successful relationship is when they’re both on the same page about say, what content really does, or what is defined as top or bottom of the funnel. The faster you get there, it’s a starting point for the consultants on the agency side to really start thinking broader than just the press release that they create. It really pushes the team.”

On the other hand, it’s also common for young PR professionals—especially in Singapore—to use their agency experience as a springboard to an in-house role.

“Agencies are preparing them for this transition to client side. So we, as an agency, and as an industry, could do better in marrying some of the operating languages on both sides,” said Seow.

A first step to improving language, said Seow, is understanding what the terms ‘in-housing’ can mean for agencies. “We say ‘in-housing’ a lot, and that sometimes makes us feel like the ‘out-house’. And the out-house can feel like the dog-house,” he said.

Geraldine Kan, head of communications, Asia Pacific & Japan, HP, agreed with Seow and said that agency consultants should be treated and spoken to like extended team members.

“We need to have a shared idea of what success means. Because an agency might feel like they’re able to do really cool creative work. Whereas, as a client, I need something that’s measurable and I’m able to bring upstairs,” said Kan.

This ‘shared idea of success’ is echoed by Rasyida Paddy, ASEAN PR Lead for Oracle. “[Agencies] may be pitching certain things that appeal to a comms person, but you also need to understand that I’m proposing this to my client and I need to be able to socialise this idea internally,” she said.

“It’s about putting yourself in the clients’ shoes and understanding what they have to deal with in-house. For a lot us working in MNCs, we have to report back to stakeholders, the stakeholders report back to HQ, and HQ needs to report back to business stakeholders. All those stages might look different.”

One way to bridge that gap is a basic but no less vital step: ask questions.

“[Agencies need to] have visibility over how their clients spend their time. The truth of the matter is, for many of us in-house, a lot of time is spent in meetings. We are very time-poor. If you feel like you don’t get sufficient info that you need, just ask the questions,” said Paddy.

HP’s Kan concurs. “We live, eat and breathe our brand. And we have to educate our agency about the hard networks, the soft networks, where the decision-makers are. And I wish, I wish, I wish, agencies would ask me more questions. I really do,” she said.

“You have to know how your client is set up. With the way the ecosystem is integrating, I don’t think we have a choice. And this is incumbent not just on the brand, but also on the agency to find out how it works. Because otherwise, PHD is going to eat your lunch.”

WE’s Seow said that feedback or review sessions are also helpful for agencies to understand where they might be falling short. But of course, these sessions should also commend the good work they put out.

“I’ve worked with a lot of clients who are very solutions- and business-focused, they don’t really proactively talk about the good stuff that goes right. They only talk about all the stuff that goes wrong,” he said.

“And on agency side, we tend to think ‘I’ve screwed up, I’m going to be in bad shape’. In the past couple of years, I’ve been a lot more encouraged by these review sessions because we also talk about the good stuff.”

On the flipside, Derrick Koh, head of internal communications, East Asia & Japan, Schneider Electric, encourages agencies to review his in-house team.

“To get better quality of work, better efficiency, better speed, there has to be a better way than just providing complaints to the agency when they’re not stepping up to the game. So we thought, let’s self-reflect a bit. What can we as clients do better to help them along? Because at the end of the day, it’s like a marriage,” he said.

“The best person to keep you honest is the agency, they’re working with you day in day out. So we created a checklist and gave it to all our servicing people and said ‘why don’t you rate us on a half-yearly basis on these key criteria?’”

Is age just a number?

The rate of account handlers entering and leaving their positions is high, and oftentimes, this means that the account handler is fairly junior.

“I’ve seen unsuccessful agency relationships where the main account handler is one or two generations younger in terms of experience than the client. As a client leader or as an operations leader, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Koh.

“At some point, we have to recognise that there’s a disconnect between them and the senior clients. Senior clients are still mostly 40 and above, and if you have an account director who’s never had that type of boardroom discussion and trying to present a one million dollar concept that executes across paid, earned, and owned at a very troubling economic time…”

On the plus side, Koh added that some bigger agency networks have started rectifying this problem by bringing back senior account handlers where necessary.

Young account handlers may have creative prowess, but may sometimes overstep into the “radical” zone, he added.

“Sometimes the client doesn’t ‘get it’ for various reasons, whether [the idea] is too advanced for the type of industry, or for the management, or the type of customers that the client has. So there should be some patience [on the agency side] when pitching an idea where the client doesn’t get immediately,” said Koh.

HP’s Kan said that it’s not just about age, but where to fit in different talent in different circumstances.

“In one circumstance, I might want to bring in somebody who’s 20-something and really creative to pitch an idea. And in times of a crisis or dealing with something reputational, I’d better have somebody in there who has gone through a few hard knocks,” she said.

“Stakeholder management is key, not only in-house but in the agency as well. It’s my job to help my team as well as the agency’s team understand what the stakeholders think. How we want them to feel. Ultimately, we’re people. We cannot forget that we’re working with different human beings with different skills and preferences.”

Read the news!

Don’t just read the room, read the news. What seems like an obvious must-do for PR professionals is, apparently, a dying trait.

“I feel like sometimes we forgot along the way that we’re consultancies, not just the production agency. We’ve forgotten how to be culturally, politically and economically aware to have that decent business conversation with clients,” said WE’s Seow.

“I’m beginning to see the decline in the number of people who read newspapers. Sometimes, I work with young PR professionals and I tell them ‘could you just do me a favour and read the Saturday paper?’”

Koh said that it’s “music to the client’s ears” when the agency can start their conversation or pitch with a big picture comment linked to the client’s business.

“Something that’s current, something that’s not just craft-related, something that they know has some sort of direct or indirect relation to a business impact,” he said.

“It’s fine to say ‘hey, we can put out a press release, hold a press conference, we can hook up with this influencer’, but to what end? I think fundamentally understanding and speaking that bigger business language is important. For an agency, it’ll do well to have a good grasp of that. It’ll lead to more work, more credibility, and it’ll build trust.”

On top of that, a better worldview also means better work. He cites the conceptualisation and success of Nike’s campaign last year with Colin Kaepernick.

“A good agency might say ‘It might be a PR project, but hey, can we pull marketing in?’ because we need that kind of marketing activation and the budgets that they have to make this a bigger idea. I don’t think [the Nike campaign] started and ended as a PR idea. It had legs in different parts of the organisation,” he said.

HP’s Kan agreed that reading the news should be mandatory for agencies. “They have to figure out what people’s interests are and what they’re talking about. You need those insights to go anywhere – because your C-suites are reading those papers,” she said.

“What’s happening to your clients is a function of geopolitics and economics. If you can’t have that discussion, I’m sorry but there’s no seat at the table for you.”

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