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Virtual Agencies: State of the Nation Report

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

The PRCA Virtual PR Agencies Group which George and I co-chair has just published a short ‘State of the Nation’ report, looking at awareness levels and perceived pros and cons of the virtual model. We were delighted that PRovoke published the research last month, following its 2019 podcast, “The Rise of Virtual Agencies”.

Senior in-house PR and communications directors based in the UK with a UK and / or international remit provided input to the research project, responding to a brief questionnaire and providing additional anecdotal insights and opinions. Over half (51%) of respondents had used a virtual agency in the past. The data and insights have been assimilated and form the basis of the recent report.

The research found that 64% of senior comms leaders agreed that they would use a virtual PR agency. However 41% expressed a lack of awareness of where to find one, and 46% have concerns over the management of remote teams. These are the main barriers to adoption of the model, according to the new research. In terms of benefits, more than a quarter (26%) felt the biggest benefit of a virtual structure was access to a wider network of skilled professionals, based either locally or internationally. Value for money was the second perceived benefit (20%).

Alec Stanwell, head of internal and external communications at Shell Energy Retail suggested we should steer away from navel gazing about what clients think about the model as it becomes more normalised, commenting:

"I think the focus is less on the model and more on the delivery. The benefits of the virtual model may be important, but are secondary to the work being delivered. It’s a little like cloud computing - it’s almost not relevant as long as the product works well and works effectively.”

The PR Network grew topline sales by 36% in 2019 to over £3million and ran projects in 40 countries. The clear client appetite for the model demonstrated in this research backs up our direct experience that the virtual agency sector is burgeoning in the UK and worldwide.

The PRCA Virtual PR Agency Group founded in 2018 with the support of the PRCA and Francis Ingham will continue to drive growth and improvement in the sector through our work around Reputation, Growth & Leadership, Team & Culture and Technology. Founding Group member Sarah Waddington (MD, Astute.Work), who led the research project, said:

“What’s clear is that we need to build confidence in the model, which gives in-house teams access to senior PR expertise with the ability to scale quickly, confidently and cost-effectively.”

As a collective we will demonstrate strong governance through initiatives such as the new CMS redesigned for virtual agencies, which The PR Network is leading and planning to achieve ourselves in Q1. We will also encourage our members and the broader network to promote their good work through awards to ensure we stand alongside traditional agencies.

This comes on the back of several comments about the lack of visibility of virtual agencies such as this from Doyel Maitra, head of PR and consumer affairs at Moneysupermarket who said:

”Virtual agencies need to do more to promote their client testimonials from big brands (not just during pitches). This will encourage other companies to try a new model of agency.”

Like the old adage about builders and their houses, some PR professionals are notoriously poor at their own PR, focusing more on their clients’ images and reputations. However the research shows there is a strong appetite for our type of agency, but if clients don’t know we exist, they can’t find us! We’ve taken heed and entered two award schemes this year already, and have been shortlisted in the Boutique Agency of the Year category in the PRMoment Awards 2020. Wish us luck.