#FutureAgency interview with John Bushell

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 Bushell, Managing Director of Sports Marketing Surveys Inc.

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

Human resources

We try to give people autonomy with clear roles and specialisms in the organisation, but we also recognise the need to have flexibility due to the size of the business; and hence, we enable the team to get involved in other areas as needed.

It is important that our team has real knowledge of the sports they are working on and so we assign sports specialists to the business areas they are responsible for; for example, we have clients in the golf industry and the Sports Account Managers assigned are golfers and followers of the professional game; we are moving into cycling, and so have an avid cyclist on the team who can discuss the technical aspects of the sport. We try to ensure people’s personal passions are engaged at a business level as well. This is a change.

We did a management buyout and took it out of a bigger organisation – we’re less hierarchical now. This creates real ownership for the work produced, and working in small team units creates a strong spirit.  There are commercial rewards as well as we have a bonus pool based on sales and service which ensures that staff have financial as well as emotional ties to the work they do.


Client management

This is the most important thing to focus on. We spend more time on client contact than most businesses and believe this pays good dividends.  A face to face meeting is very important in terms of building relationships – it also enables us to identify the real objectives of a project, the requirements and stress points.


Campaign organisation (job bags / project management)

We use whiteboards with names written up on it!  We operate a few key systems for report delivery, outstanding proposals, or projects that have not been confirmed either way – so that we can track the status. We probably should have a more formal project management system, and this is something we are considering.


Operations management

As a small organisation, we have individuals responsible for overseeing basic operations such as postage, couriers, stationery, or even just keeping the supplies of coffee, tea and milk organised. Our finance manager is responsible for all invoicing and along with me for authorising payments to suppliers. Hence, there is no confusion on who should be responsible for these operational areas. The Sports Account Managers are responsible for their own client & project operations management.


Finance

Cash is very important – we ensure the individual account managers chase outstanding invoices rather than a central commercial person doing it – those who have worked on the projects deal with their client managers.  The personal touch is more effective.


Real estate 

We rented offices from the old company and we jokingly called it the ‘Berlin Wall’ as there was only a locked door between us.  We put in our own IT server, and alarm system. We have rented some more space in the same business unit area – which has sadly made us a split site – even though only split by 20 yards. Not ideal – we have signed an original 5 year lease on the office.


IT infrastructure

We have a third party IT provider – who sources laptops, screens, servers, and supports on IT problems. Nothing is left in house as we are not experts, and so we tried to take these costs out of the business.


Internal communications

We travel quite a lot – email is critical but we encourage people to talk to each other face-to-face and not send an email 20 yards!


Contracts

With the Team nothing has changed contractually.  The new business maintained existing terms and conditions, and if anything we have widened the holistic coverage of pension cover etc. Nothing is as important as your team in a small relationship driven business.


Branding & website

We’ve spent money on a third party design agency to create a brand identity for ourselves. The objective was to build brand equity – we have tried to ensure we do not lose previous goodwill from the name, but that we are distinct and seen as different from the business the buy-out took place from – we have then used this look consistently on all areas of the business operations specifically in all reports produced.

We had a third party design the website – but we decided on the sections and areas required and then wrote the copy ourselves.


Business Development

We’d like to do multi-year deals with clients but in this economy find individual project or service based arrangements are the norm.  Many companies cut back on research in difficult times – something we think is often reverse logic, as this is when you need real insight. We like to be problem-solvers with our clients rather than just developing off-the-shelf products.  If we understand more about the clients’ business objectives or stress-points then we can provide more targeted solutions. As clients businesses become more remote and digital – whether this is communicating with their customers or retailing – we find that face-to-face dialogue is more important.

There still exist a number of major international sports shows which we will attend because our clients will be present. Obviously, we will visit them in-situ if appropriate – but this involves significant international travel – and so if we can meet at a show to discuss their needs there are advantages for both of us.


Knowledge management

We have specialists in questionnaire design and data presentation – we share internally new techniques, questionnaire styles, presentation styles – we are small enough to share developments. There is not a formal process for doing this – and so we are dependent on a little on ad-hoc knowledge management.


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

Within the organisation – and extended organisation – there is significant experience. For example, the Chairman has run a successful business in sport, we have a non-Executive Director who was involved in one of the major international sports events for over 20 years, and also, there is an office in the USA – part of the group but not commercially linked to us – which has significant insight & experience. There is not a formal external route or source that we use.

 

How do you prioritise?

Small businesses always have the issue about the urgent versus the important.  Managing time is probably the hardest thing we have to address.  The bad side is work takes over your life.  I do deadline management – having a clear focus on when things are to be delivered.  Priority is to retain relationships with existing customers – but this always puts a strain on growing the business, as you need to find new clients to continue to evolve – and this is harder and takes time.

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