We’ve reached the end in the race to the bottom for digital PR

Category: Agency News

By: Rich Leigh

Digital PR.

Bloody dig-i-tal P-R.

Hands up who enjoys fighting for a decreasing pot of cash each month against every other agency that, through growth and market impact became desperate enough to agree to this… client cuckoldry. Anybody? No you don’t.

I’ve been at the link building coalface for more than 15 years now – but it was always teamed with good old fashioned PR strategy and tactics, and a healthy respect for journalists. In fact, with first-PR boss Andy Barr at 10 Yetis, we used to call it our secret weapon when pitching. It helped us win the likes of Myprotein, Just-Eat and IKEA, who bought on the basis of great consumer PR AND the fact we knew our way around SERPs and ways to ‘force’ links to client sites.

Well, the last few years have ushered in a so-called golden age of digital PR, while I and others tried to increasingly ensure the delineation was clear – ‘digital PR’ is one of many comms tactics. I held off even calling it that until it became obvious its adoption was complete and the language of prospective clients.

Clients aplenty saw PR as a quick and affordable way to earn much-needed links from relevant and high authority domains – read: media titles. And it is. Not that many hadn’t before as I say, but it exploded, especially before and during the pandemic. It was activity that could achieve both immediate AND longer-term impact when competitors might have stopped spending.

Salaries and job opportunities became inflated – and job titles and roles conflated – as SEO agencies and new industry entrants offered more and more – in terms of cash and policies; the second they realised blunt force ‘Y U NO LINK TO US BBC?’ might need some traditional PR tact, and more bodies to deliver against this need.

It contributed to a post-pandemic spike in job opportunities. This has since tailed off into the lowest number of job ads in PR and marketing since furloughing was still in place more than 2 years ago (from ONS job data – see a graph I’ve created tracking PR and marketing specifically here and you’ll see the shape of things).

Well, I honestly believe we’ve reached the end in the race to the bottom of a particular kind of link building.

With brands tasking multiple agencies to fight each other for the same outlet links – something that started in the pandemic and has only gotten worse, well, that usually ends one way: with higher and higher expectations for less and less.

I think we’d all agree that it takes a kind, disciplined and empathetic client not to take advantage in that situation. We’re fortunate to have some of these, but also, we’ve had many that weren’t. If you’re reading this still, chances are you’ve had them too.

And let’s be honest, there’s little pride in that.

It’s become so incredibly diluted, productised and sapped of true and memorable creativity that, as we were chosen in more and more of these digital PR Hunger Games scenarios – monthly link reports a Damoclean sword above our heads, controlled by ever-more pressured middle management and link-hungry founders – we failed on one of my fundamental wants for this agency: to make money AND have fun doing it.

It used to be that winning a client meant it was the start of building a relationship based on trust and respect. Is that always the case now?

Our team built to a decent, even impressive size – but it just didn’t make sense anymore, and it wasn’t the PR agency I wanted to build or run. It took its toll, frankly, and I took a short step back to focus on my own health and happiness, while continuing to do everything I could, as we’ve all had to over recent years to support team members emotionally and financially.

It appears we’re not the only ones. From June onwards, and as highlighted in this beautifully honest blog from CEO Paddy Moogan, Aira will no longer be offering digital PR services to its clients. I’ve spoken to other agency founders who have said they’re considering similar. One agency that began with a big PR for SEO splash focuses much less on it these days.

Gisele Navarro, of NeoMam, tweeted with this:

This isn’t about not being able to compete – Christ, I’ve little to prove about how good we can be – but about taking control and ensuring we’re pointing in the right direction for us.

The next steps for Radioactive

I’m not saying we can’t still do great and meaningful work in digital PR. We can and we will. But not to the detriment of the aspects of PR I love. We’ve earned a million links and we’ll earn a million more, but I’m going to be much more cautious about the kind of clients we work with.

We want more clients like Conor McGregor’s Forged Irish Stout, who we’ve come out of the blocks for already (see this video below, or this blog announcing the win).

Brand-building through PR and good communications is a powerful motivator for me. I’m obviously not knocking it (but for where we now find ourselves), but can you name one brand that people on the street would know that did so with digital PR alone?

So, with that and wary of this becoming even longer, much love to everybody in the industry. We’re all doing our best. But if I hear the words ‘you’ll be judged alongside these other agencies’ when speaking to another client, I’m probably running in the other direction.