PR agencies are organisms in their own right; they, too, are subject to the laws of evolution
I’ve just completed a number of seemingly unrelated books, across which there appears a singular theme. Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, The Everything Store, Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone, and Cellular Business Intelligence by Paulo Andreoli. Paulo Andreoli is the Chairman of MSL Group and was kind enough to send me a copy of his insights into competitive data, how to obtain and exploit it to remain competitive, all the way from Sao Paulo.
So, what’s the link? Nature. You can’t fight it; we are all an amalgam of cells, after all. Leonardo Da Vinci saw patterns in everything; from the shape of a sunflower to the manner in which a dove would beat its wings, he also saw connections between the human body functions (blood, muscles and nerves) and the natural world (mountains, rivers and precipitation which linked the two). For Da Vinci, the human state was a metaphor for the natural one and vice versa; a tress of curly hair falling across a woman’s shoulders replicated exactly the path of a current of water in a whirlpool. They are all subject to the same forces, and – in the final instance – follow the same principles.
Jeff Bezos and his management team were highly influenced by Steve Grand’s book Creation and How to Make It, based on the author’s experiments with computer coding and replicating life forms. In particular, the idea that predicting the nature of creation and evolution is impossible; but creating an environment where life can evolve and flourish is not. The point being that, rather than attempt to determine the future, our best bet is to create the building blocks (so-called ‘primitives’) with which life forms will eventually emerge. Once established, these building blocks combine and permute with each other to produce life forms which could never have been otherwise predicted, but which are capable of prospering and, in turn, precipitating others.
The parallel with the computing environment is evident; in this instance, the operating system (Android, Apple OS, Microsoft) represents the primitive upon which all life forms are built. No one could have seriously predicted what such life forms (of ‘apps’) could have resembled, but a glance at AppStore or GooglePlay is sufficient to appreciate the variety. Every app is designed to solve a problem or gratify a desire. The genius is not necessarily building the app; rather, it’s in creating and nurturing the environment in which they can thrive. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer realised this back in 2001; he couldn’t possibly have been clearer, could he?
The key aspect of Cellular Business Intelligence (CBI) is found in its name. The cells in question are not some sort of business metaphor; no, they are a reference to the very cells that define life. The basis of this book is not a set of case studies illustrating the value of business information. In fact, it’s pure biology, and one particular biologist’s theory about why some organisms prosper and others decline.
According to Nobel Prize-winning biologist, Bruce H Lipton, the principal motive for cell multiplication is to better monitor and then respond to changes in the environment. To quote from his book The Biology of Belief:
“…Like humans, single cells analyze thousands of stimuli from the microenvironment they inhabit. Through the analysis of this data, cells select appropriate behavioral responses to ensure their survival… The more awareness an organism has of its environment, the better its chances for survival. When cells band together they increase their awareness exponentially…”
This is the central idea behind CBI; an organisation’s success and longevity correlates directly with its ability to track changes in its operating environment. Many management theories focus on responding to such changes, but CBI’s attention is on monitoring them; in short, businesses need to prioritise listening. And not only conventional listening – market data, the regulatory environment, competitive analysis etc. – but listening to so-called ‘weak signals’; trends and insights which may not be directly or conventionally connected to the organisation, but which may exert a telling impact.
Numerous examples of ‘weak signals’ which had telling impacts on operating examples are listed, from the emergence of the sharing economy (and its impact on traditional business models), to peer-to-peer communication and its implications for transparency and corporate reputation. Identifying them is not trivial, however. It’s vital to appoint and train teams who can validate such ‘non-linear’ connections, extrapolate them, and assess their likely impact on the operating environment. And this is all before an organisation decides to respond.
I recognise much of direct relevance to the PR agency business in each of these treatises. The ability to spot patterns in data (structured and unstructured) and potential risks/opportunities from the same now represents a core skill for the profession. Steve Grand’s theory of ‘primitive’ building blocks vital for life to emerge is also compelling. I believe that an equivalent exists within the profession; fundamentals which are codified and upon which new offering will emerge. Such core skills could range from research and copywriting, to relationship mapping and story-boarding. Instead of trying to guess precisely what the end product should be (no one knows, neither the ad agency, the management consultant, the marketing company or, even, the client), PR firms should be advised to focus on this operating environment, ensuring that these basics are mastered. Only then will a scalable customer proposition emerge.
Finally, it turns out that listening is more important than we realised; it is the basis on which life emerged. This is the most fundamental service which – by nature of their separation from their clients – PR firms should be delivering, every day. What is happening outside, what does it mean, should the brand be worried or look to exploit the shift? And how.
In this way, PR firms will build indispensability into their offering; in evolutionary terms, our professional survival depends on it.