What Goes Up Must Come Down
Why? New clients are coming through the gate. Another figure well in positive territory was the 56% of respondents opining that new business prospects were stronger than at the same time the previous year.
Well, duh. 2009 was a real crapper of a year, so comparing bad and worse doesn't reveal a totally accurate picture.
I don't want to be the Cassandra on the catwalk here and say that bad times are going to creep back and bite us. On the contrary, I'm thrilled about the council's news and think those optimistic projections are terrific for our industry. Positive vibes are contagious. Those delicate green shoots we waited for to sprout last year have now grown into bushes (well, knee-high little ones, at any rate). Clients did return in 2010, and although they weren't spending as much as they were previously, at least they were spending. At the same time, those new accounts -- that 56% of respondents are excited about -- started to emerge.
Budgets are rising; skepticism is melting. Hooray for that.
So the key now is to make that recovery sustainable. A common mistake PR companies made during the go-go years was taking clients and budgets for granted. Public relations was a budgetary line item that would grow forever or, at the very least, remain steady.
Guess what? It wasn't.
Just like planets and objects, business is subject to the laws of gravity. If it goes up, at some point it's going to come down. And it did, hard, during the Great Recession. When that happened, clients began their second-guessing and their budget slicing. And one easy target for slice-and-dice action was PR expenditures. After all, PR isn't something material to grab onto. It's not a new factory, another retailer pumping a client's products, or an exciting market recently opened for sales. PR is an intangible that's so hard for CFOs and C-Suiters to get a proper grip on if they're not familiar with its reach, power and effectiveness. Or even scope.
It's easy to blame the poor harried managers in those struggling clients for being shortsighted about this, but the truth is that we made it easy for them. During the years when the money was flowing in, agencies habitually plowed ahead, crafting strategy and chasing placements as they always had. The problem is, they neglected to spend much effort proving the real value of their work. We're paid to give clients a distinctive voice and make sure that voice reaches an audience.
So we should be more vocal about doing that ourselves.
Understandably, given the decline so many companies were experiencing at the end of the 2000s, a lot of them took a cold, hard look at the value of what we offer and found it wanting. It's not because we did a bad job. Far from it -- it's because we didn't try hard enough to tell them why PR matters.
As we all know, brilliantly executed PR can make a huge difference between Just Another Company and one with a strong presence to help differentiate and rise above its competitors. We're good at selling companies and brands to the world; we shouldn't be shy about selling our value and ourselves.
So in these early days of renewed optimism and watching budgets rise, the question before us is, "Will we start to focus on this as we should, or simply ride the higher fees and hope it lasts forever?" History shows that we've opted for door number two, while barely thinking of door number one. Yes, we're forward-thinking and optimistic, which is wonderful, but that can also mean shortsighted and lazy, too.
These good times aren't going to last forever, you know; sooner or later, there will be another slump.
Shouldn't we be prepared?
When we do our job well, we are an indispensable part of a client's approach to the market and its business. We have to become an indispensable part of its budget, too. Although we should all enjoy and benefit from the upswing, we should also reinvest a little into some PR efforts of our own. If we do, the bad times won't be that bad, and the good times will be great. Who needs another slump?