The UBER PR agency model is coming of age: A discussion of on demand services with Rob Da Costa

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

I’m normally the one interviewing people, but this time, it was my turn to be on Rob Da Costa’s Agency Accelerator podcast. I first shared with him how I first ended up in Singapore in 1992 when I was tasked to help a client manage trade shows in the music technology business. Having been infected by the excitement and the energy of Asia, in ’94-’95, I decided to move to Singapore. With a couple of suitcases and a borrowed laptop, I started EASTWEST Public Relations to take advantage of the growing desire of companies to sell goods and services into Asia. At the time, there were almost no public relations agencies in Asia, so the timing was great for me as a young 27-year-old in Asia during the beginnings of the wonderful 90s.

Building relationships as an agency is how we add value to the client. Proximity and personality are not as important as adding value with every communication. Positioning ourselves as trusted advisors, as the eyes, the ears, and the operations that the client can’t have, forms a relationship based on need rather than on emotion. This is how EastWest PR builds relationships remotely as an international agency. We work to ensure that we keep our clients engaged in all the work that we do for them. We want to demonstrate our value, and it doesn’t necessarily require being in the same room to do so.

Reaching out to journalists in Asia

Photo from KidzWorld

Journalists are great people to work with and they’re always keen to work with agencies. And no matter what country they’re from, they all want the same thing: a great story for their readers, so we first focus on the content that we will give the media. This requires understanding what the audience is looking for and where they are on that journey. We begin with what is going to be of interest and then tailor it to fit the needs of the particular journalist or readers based on, say, their culture. International public relations is about being sensitive to the local requirements and being able to deal with different personalities. If there is a common theme amongst all Asian media, it’s a desire to learn. Asian media are always very well prepared when they come for media interviews and press briefings, and they live by a non-confrontational philosophy. People in authority lead with responsibility, so from the journalist’s point of view, if they’re being invited to learn about a company, product, or service, they are being told information truthfully.

A fundamental difference between Western media and Asian media is ownership. The history of Western media portrays them to be an independent voice of the people, the publishers, and so on. In Asia, many of the media are owned by the government, so there’s a very different structural position of the media which have been seen as the voices of the government as opposed to the voices of the people holding the government to account.

How to build relationships remotely

Photo from 10to8

When it comes to building relationships without being physically present, if the premise of an agency is that you’re adding value to a client and to the media, proximity isn’t necessary as well as ownership of the factors of production. In other words, hiring people and having them as full-time staff is not a precondition for them knowing how to add value to a client. If we embody the mindset that anybody can add value to a client as long as they know how to, then they can do that regardless of the economic or contractual relationship with the agency. 

Managing people can be one of the biggest tasks as a business owner, and in having managed multiple regions with multiple staff, there are merits to that and there’s consistency of delivery. But nowadays, the economics have changed in the market. Gone are the days of annual retainers. Clients now want a result against some of their own deliverables which are often driven by shareholder requirements. Clients would like to align their expenditure to their quarterly revenue, so this truncation in relationship has caused a shift in thinking. There is no need to have a permanent, open-ended relationship with a member of staff when the relationship with the client is not like that in the first place. It creates structural inequality in the business and risk. You’re buying with one set of commitments, but you are still only an agent without any tenure or consistency, yet the client wants you to get something done. From a commercial point of view, that’s building a business that fundamentally is at risk.

One of two key elements to the virtualization of an agency or this Uber model is that the client still has a known brand to go to with an established platform. Thanks to Zoho, anybody who works with me uses the same email address and the same workflow that I have put in place. This includes templates for documents, quotes, invoices, and media lists. Everything exists in the same way as it would if we were a brick and mortar agency. The second element is the relationship between me and the consultant. A simple financial model we use is that from 100% that comes from the client, 20% of that will go to the agency, 10% goes to the person that brings in the business (which could be the agency), 10% serves as a buffer, and 60% goes to the consultant. Normally, the consultant only gets a third of what the client pays because the agency has to factor in the member of staff’s salary, the operational cost, and the gross margin. But by getting rid of all the middle management and desk office infrastructure, that allows more money to go to the consultant.

The kicker for clients is they only work with people that actually want to be on the job. Usually, the best staff are already busy, so you end up deploying whoever’s available, and the owner could sometimes have to pick up the slack by helping out too. With this virtualization model, you only work with people who know what to do and are good at it, and because they’re self-employed, they know they’re only going to get paid if they deliver. That gives the owner an amazing amount of freedom to choose the consultant that’s best for the job, and it eliminates the risk. The consultant works hard to deliver the client’s needs, and the client gets the best person for the job, so all three stakeholders get something of value from this model.

This has shown Rob the other side of the coin, as he believes it can be quite difficult to build a sustainable, growing agency using freelancers, because it’s like building a business on quicksand, he says, since freelancers often have their own agendas. And if it’s not aligned to the agency’s visions, that can be problematic. That’s why one needs to first address or determine the purpose of the agency. Businesses generally look to create income for their shareholders, and that can be done without a large number of staff while still fostering the same creativity and culture. 

Dealing with the virtualization of an agency

Photo from Elegant Themes

Three important areas are finding people, consistency of delivery, and personnel change. Consistency and continuity are hallmarks of an agency. They are just part of any business. The key to finding the right people is looking for those who have got credibility and good credentials already. Some ways to do that are by working with former members of staff and checking people’s bios on platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, and The PR Cavalry. One of the amazing aspects of the digital footprint is that with a little investigation, you can find out a lot about a person. If someone is being closeted inside an agency, they could be rubbish, but you wouldn’t be able to find that out because what they do doesn’t get published, whereas freelancers are constantly looking for work and getting reviews and testimonials. That makes it much safer to find good people.

The second is about consistency. This is where the methodologies and the processes come in place, which is what SPEAK|pr talks about. The value of a business is the process by which it delivers to customers and the money it makes from that process. It’s about creating a process and ensuring everyone follows that by using common email addresses, using shared work groups, and the like. Communication is key, which is what platforms like Asana or Trello are for. 

The third is about personnel and its transitory nature. It’s common for people to move on. Many people don’t like to stay in the same place for too long. The only people that do are the business owners, while everyone else passes through. Because of that, it’s best make sure that the consultant that’s going to take the job is committed to delivering for the duration of the agreement. Whatever agreement there is with the client, whether it’s for three, six, or 12 months, the consultant needs to be on those same terms with penalties for people not keeping to those, and the benefit of that is reduced commercial risk.

It’s really important to have the platforms in place that enable the management of people remotely as well as the creation of a consistent customer experience. Whether hiring a freelancer or someone in-house, it’s all about finding quality people. Now, it might even be harder to find full-time, in-house people than to find well-qualified freelancers. Especially in light of COVID, there are a growing number of people who want to work remotely and don’t want a permanent, full-time role. Things have changed, so it’s going to be easier to find high quality senior people than ever before. 

Lastly, if I were to go back to the 90s, to the time when I was just starting out, I would give myself the advice that I took, which is to get a customer first. A business doesn’t exist without a customer. It’s a vanity project otherwise. The first thing I did before I went to Asia was I got a customer, and that is the advice I’d give myself and anybody looking to start a business. Without a customer, you’ve just got an idea. This conversation with Rob has shown him a different perspective when it comes to growing an agency virtually, and I’m glad to enlighten him and others on the advantages that it brings. It was truly a great meeting of the minds, and if you would like to listen to more of Rob’s insightful conversations, you can listen to his podcast here

Cover Photo from Da Costa Coaching

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