As focus shifts to productivity and efficiency, so should comms professionals

Icon Agency's David Radestock explores how the communications industry could look to the technology industry for a way towards greater productivity and efficiency as rising costs squeeze client budgets.

The technology sector—and those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time talking about it—loves a buzzword.

“Innovation” was big before being sacrificed on the altar of Malcolm Turnbull’s premiership. “Digital transformation” had its day until almost every organisation transformed overnight. We’ve had “hybrid” (cloud; work) and “deploying” (solutions; capital), AI, AR, VR, MR, and the Metaverse.

This year’s buzzword is shaping up as a battle between the closely linked concepts of productivity and efficiency. A looming recession, continuing war in Ukraine, geopolitical tensions, and supply chain complexities have combined to create a new environment after the pandemic-induced boom years. Technology companies are looking for efficiencies internally while recognising that customers are as focused on better utilising what they have as investing in something new.

As communications consultants, it goes without saying that our job is to craft, articulate and disseminate this message, to eagerly scroll thesaurus.com for synonyms for “productive” and “efficient”. To recognise the reality of the world around us and package it into something which cuts through.

But beyond the strategies and narratives, press releases and social posts, we should also pay heed to the message itself. The technology sector is not alone in facing these conditions and is not unique in its response. Budgets across communications disciplines are likely to tighten, if they haven’t already. Clients will look for more efficiency, more productivity: for us to do more with less.

The historical industry response to this has been to accept its lot, drop rates, push through long hours and trust that the light at the end of the tunnel is closer than it looks. But this approach is now both unwise and unachievable. The progress made in demonstrating real business impact during the pandemic should not be unwound, while a talent shortage has pushed wages higher and meant there is little room for tightening margins.

Instead, we need to find ways to enhance our own productivity, doing so sustainably while using market forces as an accelerant on four priorities which often fall into the “too hard” bucket, or fail to deliver on the promise of eloquent website copy.

The first is measurement. Movement on this thorny topic has usually been stymied by a lack of budget, half measures, or internal client metrics which prioritise volume-dependent share of voice over real impact. The budget issue is now being addressed by new tools which make brand tracking affordable for many organisations. Half measures need to be consigned to history—measuring quality of coverage is a step up from quantity, but fails to establish a clear link to business objectives. Internal client metrics are the toughest nut to crack. Often, the answer is to acquiesce to organisational requirements, while also working with internal communications teams to measure in a more sophisticated way, informing future work with richer data.

The second is integration, the holy grail of communications consultancy. While the industry has mostly managed to achieve it, a mindset shift is required in these new, straitened times. Rather than see integration primarily as a means of unlocking new pockets of budget, we must consider it a means to deliver higher ROI and link more firmly back to real impacts, as well as output. Challenging briefs by listening rather than assuming is fundamental to this shift.

Next is applying behaviour change principles to every plan, campaign, and activity. Being audience-first is a well worn trope, but understanding the motivations and incentives behind any group or individual, and the levers required to drive real action, is key to translating insight to exploit. Taking this step not only requires expertise backed by data, human insights and research, but client trust to add layers of preparation and rigour to planning. The payoff, however, should be a higher return on that investment and lessons learned which elevate any future work.

Finally, and returning to the theme of buzzwords, is the use of AI to expedite lower value work. A pledge inserted into countless interviews over the years is now a reality. My colleague Joseph Walker has already (either bravely or foolishly) considered how ChatGPT could make his job easier or redundant, depending on your perspective. But OpenAI’s ubiquitous tool is far from the only solution which can strip out timely admin and open up a world of efficiency, productivity and creativity. The communications industry has been historically slow to embrace these tools, but innovation (another buzzword) has never been more important or urgent.

None of these measures are new, nor are they particularly revolutionary. Rather, they must now become more immediate priorities—moved up the ever expanding to-do list by external forces as well as internal ambition. It’s time to put those productivity synonyms to good use.

David Radestock, Director of Technology, PR, Icon Agency


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