#FutureAgency interview with Rachel Alexander

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.

We asked Rachel Alexander, founder of Alexanders, a New Zealand company with specialist expertise in online marketing and web design.

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

Human resources

After and before the recession – I had a model of a full service ad agency 7 years ago – we had a massive office and 12 staff – beyond 8 staff you need another creative director. I had 2 tiers of management and they were all employees. We moved because of the earthquake and the recession We are working from home and my children are 7 & 9 one of whom is special needs. I have a nanny 27 hours a week, 3 therapists, ACC, teacher aide and a low-vision network all of whom I co-ordinate in addition to my work team. Being at home enables me to keep all the balls in the air.

The staff that don’t work from home are on contract – that allows me to scale the work up and down easily. and has made us a lot more profitable – it’s productivity. We find March and Sept/Oct are the biggest months of the year and if we can avoid losing money in Jan/Feb we are doing well.

Online is now 95% of our business compared with 50% 2 years ago. Monthly contracts and retainers are suited to certain types of projects (we find it hard to sell a yearly contract) so 30% of income is recurring and stable – this takes volatility out of the equation. We have consistently won massive projects this past 2 years and I took on another person this year and one in December last year. I am having to pay a lot more for some staff because there are few qualified of the right calibre. Universities aren’t producing the graduates with the right skills – I’m having to employ immigrants from other countries with experience-based rather than academic-based skills – Internet marketing.

I find graduates are on the move – the like to only stay a year and then typically move on to other web design firms (rather than other agencies as was the case earlier).

 

Client management

In the recession (we’ve been going 15 years) we chose to go for low-hanging fruit so we worked our database hard. Having done some big projects we found that we could keep in touch with prior customers and win follow-on jobs.

In the last two years, I haven’t had to look for work as we have been barely keeping up with what’s coming in – but due to earthquakes were cautious about growth. With the addition of the new staff member, I have been able to be proactive to my client database. We actively market for the retained contract work.

I have two other businesses (e-commerce product) and selling IP to add another income stream. We only deal with clients who have >8 staff in size. These products will aim at smaller businesses. This is a system of Internet marketing – I can walk into any business and they are somewhere on that scale – it’s education – most don’t understand what can be done. This allows us to go in alongside a big agency and do something. We aren’t competing against agencies any more – there are only 4/5 in the country who understand this niche. We take work off web designers.

 

Campaign organisation (job bags / project management)

I used to have a physical job bag – it’s all now online. I chose a system that tracks costs per job – AgencyPro from Sydney.

Streamtime was created by an agency called Q and is a NZ company. They sell extensively to creative companies in UK.

 

Finance

We’ve gone online SaaSU – for accounts – it’s a global product which is half the price of Xero. I use an online accountant who is half the price of my accountancy fees – after the recession we shrunk and I couldn’t justify the fees of our other firm. He has a team of workers in India and he is a senior and we can talk to him if we need. We have part-time financial controller (I hire senior mums having babies – who like the flexibility of working from home online half of the time).

 

Real estate

I use the back third of my house (a library with the servants kitchen, staff laundry and the old kitchen / dining room) we use the spare bedroom if we need quiet time or have contractors in.

We use Skype, Dropbox.

 

IT infrastructure

We’ve replaced our whole server last year – updated.

I changed from Mac to PC server – I only have mac for graphic designers and everyone else is on PC. The PC support (ManageIT.net.nz) guys are more available.

I don’t believe in proprietary web systems – clients get stuck with companies who may be delivering poor service and have to restart their web site from scratch.

However in e-commerce I think proprietary systems are the way to go – we hated Magento. Two years ago ecommerce was too technical for us, but the market has moved and now we are having to provide ecommerce. Big Commerce is the one we are trialling at the moment. It’s Australian and we use a US developer to customise it. Most of our sites we build in Joomla – WordPress doesn’t give much sophistication in design.

 

Business development

There are a couple of firms who have a reputation for promising the world and not delivering – we did a backlink analysis on them and found their clients and went out actively to pick them up. The software we use to evaluate someone’s site there are lots. SiteExplorer used to be the main one.

 

Knowledge management

We the new division I set up everything has to be established with training manuals – so anyone else can do the work. We have issues with passwords – there are so many of them. We have 2 documents one for web protocols and one for all the others – which is 10-15 pages long. We have them password protected on our server.

 

We train clients how to use the content management systems. But all our inhouse training manuals for staff all need work! I’m trying to learn Camtasia so we can use training on videos.

 

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

Books – but again I have been so busy that I haven’t had much time for that. The things on my to do list include getting AdWords certified, learn Camtasia, a global course on pricing strategy (my model is based on the KPMG consulting model), I learn from my staff who are savvy on affiliate marketing.

I joined the Institute of Chartered Marketing and will go to NYC in November for the Internet marketing conference in November. I need to maintain the hours to keep my fellowship.

 

I used a marketing consulting model to fund my way into my dream business (knitwear which I did) but it’s ended up that the marketing business has been my mainstay!

The books out there were all based on an old traditional agency model. At times I wished I’d worked in an agency but having not done that it has made us unconstrained. We were the first digital agency in Christchurch – we’re 88% up this year (similar last year) while many others who haven’t embraced digital are floundering.

I use Streamtime – I’ve used Agency Pro – filemaker platforms. That answers your question about the creatives and how to keep them on task… because lots of agency owners have added things over the years they are very good at setting up systems (you learn as you go). Streamtime is better for contract nature of our business because it’s cloud-based. In the old days we could have used an intranet but now staff could be working from home – they can access it from anywhere.

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