In-house environments have become so intense that they are becoming increasingly dependent on agencies to decrypt and interpret the world for them
Nearly twenty years ago, I spent a couple of years managing UK communications for Cable & Wireless in London. The experience gave me a taste of the peculiar environment that in-house PR professionals inhabit. This was a world (relatively) pre-mobile, pre-social media, when online media was considered the exception rather than the norm; the world moved at a considerably slower pace than today.
However, my experience provided an insight that no amount of agency life (even operating ‘on-site’ at clients’ premises) could ever replicate. In-house life was ‘particular’ and, even, ‘peculiar’. Let me give you some examples.
- Acronym soup: People stopped using words and started relying on technical terms. From IPv41 to FDDI2, this form of corporate minimalism rendered discussions impenetrable to outsiders and contributed little to the decision-making process.
- The systematic removal of the definite article – ‘the’. In-house corporate-speak was epitomised by this grammatical trait – the annual user summit became ‘Summit’, the weekly internal meeting transformed into ‘Townhall’, while September’s traditional product push simply became ‘back-to-school’ (although neither the products nor the target group were remotely scholarly). The removing of the definite article rendered such events on a par with seasons or festivals where no article is required. Unlike the latter, however, these corporate seasons meant nothing to the real world.
- Regarding the above, even seasons were subordinated to their corporate equivalent; Springtime and Harvest became Q2 and Q4 reporting, respectively. In-house vernacular even replaced the Gregorian3 calendar with the corporate one; ‘end-of-year’ meant 31 March (financial reporting) as opposed to Auld Lang Syne4!
- Open space office protocols: My colleagues increasingly began to mimic and resemble their senior counterparts in both manner and language; neither of which had much to do with the outside world. Conspicuous consumption of caffeinated energy drinks was one such example (this was back in 1998). No meeting was complete without a supply of the same; consumption was associated with the degree of intensity and commitment to the task – tea or coffee was simply not enough. Another example regarding spoken language: Subordinates mimicked their bosses with terms so-called ‘Power Point Speak’; the proliferation of terms such as ‘to green light’ or ‘to MOU’ it (memorandum of understanding) or ‘POR’d’ ((committed to a) plan of record), which would make sense as bullet points but not as spoken language. Not in the real world, anyway.
- Balloons and brochures: Judging by the number of visits the press office received by colleagues in search of such merchandise, there was little understanding of the role or value of strategic public relations. This could have been particular to my company, but as ‘cost centres’, as opposed to ‘fee earners’, in-house practitioners have to justify their contributions on an ongoing basis. It may not be pleasant, but this is a reality within many corporate environments.
This environment is hardly conducive to ‘outside in’ thinking, putting the Word first and assessing its potential impact on the brand. The potential threat or opportunity of a new consumer trend is always going to be subordinate to an incorrect Pantone colour or an oversized logo (real corporate concerns, for many in-house teams, I assure you) when it comes to people’s attention.
This is why agencies are (or should be) so crucial to corporates; what does the Fidget Spinner craze reveal about people’s desire for physical experiences? Is the current celebrity obsession with ripped jeans a retro reference to the ‘80s, or an ironic take on modernity? What is it with velvet? Is there a type of Game-of-Thrones effect, or are we really searching for Camelot in the high street? And the B2B world is no exception; first, it was ‘Software-as-Service’, then ‘On-demand’, and now ‘Cloud’. What do these corporate catchphrases mean, particularly those which have become mainstream? Do they signify threats or opportunities, to brand? How should they react? Should they associate with the same?
The above are accepted trends, but potentially any world event could impact the best-laid corporate plans. Adverse weather spells, surprise cultural hits, collective sporting events, can all cast planned activities in a new light. Scottish independence gained an unexpected boost with Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory last year, sales of so-called ‘unusual’ ingredients featured in MasterChef Australia reportedly rose 1,400% after they were featured in the competition , New Zealand tourism recorded a 50% increase in visitor arrivals following the launch of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, generating in excess of $37 million for the country . Given the pressures and corporate priorities they face on a daily basis, are in-house professionals really best placed to spot and react to such trends?
Agencies can and should provide a vital role in observing the world so that they can help clients interpret it on a daily basis. And this means actually living in the aforementioned world; reading books, watching movies, visiting restaurants, experiencing new trends, absorbing the media (yes, beyond clippings reports!), participating in social media.
This role is one of the most vital an agency can play for a client; but all too often it is neglected and services are limited to responding client requests or briefs. As my own in-house experience confirms, the latter should be just a starting point.