Matt Phillips is the founder and MD of PPR, a virtual PR agency specialising in the media technology and marketing sectors. This month we spoke to Matt about setting up his virtual agency, the pivotal moments in his career and where he sees the industry going.
Initially, I didn't decide to go virtual, to be honest. I'd just spent three years as a client service director at a brilliant boutique b2b agency, but I wanted a change so went back to being a consultant in late 2017.
As a consultant, I learned a little more about the virtual agency sector and it struck me that clients are stuck with a binary choice - freelancer or agency. Agencies are pricey because it's expensive for them to retain senior talent, by which I mean senior account directors - or they lean too much on the charisma and address book of the management team which puts limits on that agency’s scale.
Freelancers offer seniority at a more affordable price, but they can't do everything a decent agency can and are only as useful to journalists as the clients they happen to be repping at the time. That means for challenger brands, good stories remain buried.
Our hybrid model aims to ensure challenger brands get a premium agency-like service, delivered by senior people, but at an affordable price.
Three big moments stand out. In 2001, when working in-house in a junior marketing role at the BPI, I got the opportunity to do a radio interview on 5Live to defend CD pricing. Pretty terrifying place to make your debut but I gave it a go. I put the phone down and saw I had a message which turned out to be from Feargal Sharkey, the Undertones' legendary frontman. He’d been working for another industry body at the time and happened to catch the interview. He was incredibly complementary and let everyone at the BPI know it. That was the point I became a PR.
But more recently, I was reading Felix Dennis' book 'How To Get Rich'. Despite the title, it's really a story about taking control of your own destiny. Though I knew in my bones I didn’t really want to be a consultant and wanted to build a business, this gave me the confidence and drive to actually do it; that led to us becoming a virtual agency proper last summer.
It's always bothered me that lots of the work you do as a PR is not properly valued or appreciated; you’re a kind of Swiss Army knife hybrid of on-the-clock marketing advisor, story sales-house & content-delivery machine that’s handy to have but hard to value.
Clients don't want to buy time, content, or even media coverage per se, they want business outcomes. And because earned media coverage is more about the brand, or ‘upper-funnel’ in sales jargon and by nature impossible to guarantee that creates major challenges for metrics-led marketers. This is true for any agency, traditional or otherwise.
We break down everything we do into small, definable products, all of which sit on a fixed-fee rate card. Everything is transparent. All clients pay the same, all associates are paid the same. Clients are billed for each product we deliver, and our associates are paid a revenue share on every product they deliver. This gives us the latitude to flex the programme as we go, ensures that we’re aligned on delivery and value, plus it removes that ‘OMG it’s the end of the quarter, we’ve got a review coming, we need to get busy to justify the retainer’ making-up-the-numbers PR that can happen.
Basically, you focus on aligning everyone’s commercial interests to make sure you’re doing the stuff that the client really values, plus you can build your virtual teams so their skillsets are complementary and incentivise collaboration; if you have senior experts doing stuff they love clients see that in the work.
I reckon there’s already more virtual agencies out there than we think. The likes of the PR Network have proven they can compete with the big agencies on quality (and not just on price) and there’s room in the market for others.
The virtual sector is relatively young, fragmented, and its agencies can suffer from relatively low brand awareness - something we’re working to resolve with the PRCA - but by removing the cost of fixed overhead, keeping your employee team lean and working with freelancers, virtuals can compete aggressively on price. More importantly, by being able to tap into the hugely talented and experienced freelancer marketplace efficiently and effectively, working with platforms such as The Work Crowd, virtuals can also compete on quality.”
There’s still a future for traditional PR agencies. By nature of being expensive, and being established brands that journalists recognise, they retain market power that matters in terms of attracting talent, particularly hungry up-and-coming PR talent who either aren’t ready to freelance or don’t want to. There’s also the desire of some clients to work with an established agency brand. No one got sacked for hiring IBM, so the saying goes. And finally, by nature of attracting big-brand clients means they can make inbound interest for others in their portfolio. Really it depends on what matters most to the client.
PR has never been able to solve its measurement problem, as in, how you equate the outputs of PR to the desired business outcomes. Look at advertising; spend on brand building channels such as out-of-home, print, cinema, and TV has generally declined as direct response channels like social media and search have grown. This isn’t because brand building no longer works, or because the audience isn’t there, it’s simply because marketers need to show results. PR suffers from the same problem. An effective, standard way for a business to measure PR’s effectiveness and assess how much to invest in it and when in a way boards will understand and value, remains out of reach but I’m confident that will come.
Technology and the ability to automate processes seem to suggest further growth in the virtual sector, because the value in PR lies in being able to synthesise what a brand has to offer, and what a journalist is interested in, in the form of a story. This core creative process remains incredibly valuable, and whether you call it marketing, comms, investor relations, publicity, PR, bizdev, sales or whatever the currency of creating stories to change human behaviour is at the core of what we do. Technology doesn’t change that but headwinds like AI, enterprise SaaS platforms that standardise business processes and support remote working (a trend in every part of a business) is making the process of PR more efficient; we can do more with less. So I can see PR becoming more affordable for many more business.
“We're a virtual agency specialist in the media tech and b2b marketing services sectors, with a client who wants to reach a new audience of c-suite enterprise technology buyers. It's an area we have a decent understanding of, but we lack both active media relationship and the sector knowledge to advise our client on what a differentiated and expert point of view looks like. We went to The Work Crowd to engage someone to first develop a strategy to better understand and engage this hard-to-reach audience, with a view to leading the account from then on. We were impressed with the quality of people on the platform, but also the work the Work Crowd team did behind the scenes to refine what was a fairly loose brief, and proactively contact best-fit candidates was brilliant. Deciding which one to hire was the only painful part of the process, frankly, as we'd have loved to hire everyone we shortlisted. PPR will 100% be using The Work Crowd again in the future." - Matt Phillips, Founder & MD, PPR
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