The future of PR: an interview with Maja Pawinska Sims

The future of PR: an interview with Maja Pawinska Sims

I caught up with The Holmes Report’s EMEA editor to find out what we can expect for the PR industry in 2020.


An interview with Maja Pawinska Sims is a rite of passage for anyone in the PR industry. A call from Maja puts you on your wits but her contribution to the industry makes it a better place.

Maja has spent two decades working in and reporting on the industry. Her network is huge and she has an incredible level of knowledge and insight about our business.

We first met when Maja was features editor at PRWeek in the late nineties. Like many agency types making their way in the industry I pitched her stories.

It’s this network built up over 20 years and her old-school nose for a story that makes her a great journalist.

After PRWeek Maja worked as an editor for consultancies. This included a stint at Weber Shandwick before joining The Holmes Report two years ago. It’s this recent role that gives her privileged industry access.

We caught up at Metia last week in London. I got the rare opportunity to turn the table on Maja. We talked about the state of the industry we love and in which we’ve made our careers.

Our conversation covered financial performance, innovation, mental health, diversity, integration, PR’s insecurity and more. Read on.

What’s your reading on the health of the PR industry market?

Growth in the agency market in 2018 was five percent for the second consecutive year according to the data that we’ve collected at The Holmes Report. Our estimated value of the total industry is $15.5 billion dollars.

The top ten agencies in the world bounced back after less than one per cent growth in 2017 to 4.9% this year.

For US PR firms, growth was 6.1%, a rebound from 2.6% one year ago. UK PR firms reporting in sterling declined by 0.8% thanks to the stronger dollar but 5% in real terms.

PR firms reporting in Euros grew 4.1% in reported US dollar terms, or 9% in constant currency terms. Europe’s looking like a pretty good bet.

What’s driving growth? Is anyone outperforming the market?

Midsize firms bucked the flat growth trend. They are performing more strongly than most agencies. Fee income was up 12.8% with several reporting more than 15%.

The independent middle of the market is the place to be right now.

Midsize firms with offices in strategic locations have scaled to offer integrated resources. They're small enough to be agile and flexible and adapt to a fast-changing marketplace.

They also seem to find it easier to hold onto a strong, defined culture and personality. This differentiates them from the holding group agencies.

The rise of the virtual agency is a related trend. This is an agency model that covers a core group of employees supplemented by senior experts. They provide tailor-made, long-term teams to support individual clients’ needs.

Where are clients investing their budgets? Are there any hot areas?

The big opportunity is for agencies to help clients to articulate and live their purpose. Agencies such as Porter Novelli are retooling. It has recalibrated its entire global offer around purpose.

Purpose may be the latest incarnation of corporate responsibility but it’s here to stay.

Young people want to buy from and work for purposeful organisations. It’s becoming a bottom-line must-do, not an optional extra.

What keeps agency managers awake at night?

A third of the UK industry has suffered poor mental health according to PRCA data. That’s a shocking statistic. It’s well above the 25% of the population who experience a mental health issue each year according to Mind.

We’re reached a tipping point in acknowledging mental health and action to support practitioners.

It’s hard, in a 24/7 global service business, to take your foot off the pedal. It's even harder to focus on staff wellbeing or to enforce messaging curfews to ensure people get a break.

Almost every successful agency that The Holmes Report has spoken to has put some sort of mental health and wellbeing framework in place over the past year.

What about the diversity issue? We’ve been talking about that for 20 years.

Agencies know that the lack of variety in ethnicity and socio-economic background is a huge problem.

It’s impossible to keep coming up with creative ideas to reach and resonate with audiences that are not represented on your team.

Agencies are trying to improve recruitment practices or partnering with organisations such as the Taylor Bennett Foundation. But 89% of practitioners in the UK are still white and 80% are graduates and a third are privately educated.

I know some agencies are trying to address the lack of diversity in the industry by coming up with ways of educating younger people about careers in PR.

It’s my belief that this kind of grassroots activity is the only way we’re ever going to shift things. Going into schools to talk to GCSE and A Level students, a greater take-up of apprenticeship schemes, and better recruitment practice are crucial.

There’s also been slow progress on closing the gender pay gap in the PR industry, which still stands at 13.6%, rising to 15.4% within agencies, although this is down from 21% in 2018. But it’s still not looking great, and I’m not sure what the answer is here, given that it’s not a PR industry-specific issue, but a societal one.

PR seems to have got over its inferiority complex. Have we finally tackled the integration issue?

Most successful agencies are now all over paid and owned media as well as earned. They know that with their strength in storytelling, they have a huge opportunity as the only discipline that can achieve a consistent, engaging brand narrative, regardless of channel.

Many agencies are telling us that clients may still be coming in through an earned door but are realising that they can handle much more. And while everyone in the PR seems to have done their first TV ad in the past year, earned is still at the heart of what the best agencies do.

But as we saw in Cannes this year when ad agencies again won most of the PR Lions, public relations isn’t the only discipline that has recognised the power of earned.

Part of the move towards true integration also means we’re seeing significant investment across the board in roles that didn’t exist in agencies a few years ago. This ranges from data and analytics, to planners and strategists, to social, digital and video specialists, to pure creatives, all to meet clients’ insatiable demand for high-quality, creative content based on data-driven insights.

Let’s talk about data. What’s your reading on the industry’s ability to measure its success?

I don’t think the measurement conundrum is going to go away any time soon, at least while clients are still asking for AVEs.

AMEC’s measurement framework gets more robust every year, and more and more agencies are stepping up their efforts to make a direct link between PR strategy and sales.

Some are signing up to evaluation tools, others have developed their own methodologies to prove the business impact of their work, and others are developing a specialism in SEO, since search engine optimisation based on great earned content has under-explored potential for measurable business results from PR activity.

The question is whether PR agencies want to know how they measure up to tangible business impact. Paul Holmes has written about this issue.

Is anyone in agency land doing anything innovative with artificial intelligence (AI)?

It’s a long game.

The use of new technology is creeping in to PR practice, but we’re not seeing this happen at pace, or across the board. I’m not sure how understood the potential opportunity, challenge and even threat of AI is among most practitioners.

This is one we’ll be keeping a careful eye on over the year ahead, including what the rise of voice tech means for PR.

What’s your wish for the industry as we head towards 2020?

In my view the industry needs to stop the pointless agonising over perceptions and labels. It’s clear that agencies are doing extraordinary work every day that matters to brands, organisations and people.

Loads of other agencies that have either embraced or rejected the term PR, or public relations over the past year. And the industry is still obsessed with not being Ab Fab fluff or the dark arts of spin.

This preoccupation with semantics has a lot to do with the industry’s shaky self-confidence.

But PR isn’t a poor cousin of any other related discipline. It can do stuff, make connections and tell stories that no other business function, let alone within the marketing stable, can do.

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