The Hallway has shied away from media attention in the past, but with new hires and a new way of thinking, it's coming out of its shell. Damian Francis speaks to Jules Hall and Simon Lee.
The offices of The Hallway, in Glebe, are like an illustration of the agency's current positioning. New, fresh, open… they are plain enough not to offend but also to allow for expansion in many different directions. You won't find ping pong or foosball or big bars here - these are distractions that are agencies need only if employees aren't inspired enough by their work, says managing partner Jules Hall. What you will find here is an expanding PR presence led by new hire Louise Pogmore under the umbrella brand.
For Hall, public relations will play an increasingly important role in the world of advertising agencies under the agency's brand. He doesn't believe it's a big gamble to bring in a PR professional and expand what is does to involve what journalists call the 'dark art'.
In the 22 February edition of Adnews, the cover story 'Obama's man: PR will beat ad agencies to boardrooms' spoke for itself. In it, Andrew Bleeker, who now works for Hill & Knowlton Strategies having previously been the director of internet marketing for the Obama re-election campaign, said: "The reason I joined a PR firm rather than going to an ad or media agency is that to me what is going to differentiate winning and losing is having a deep understanding of clients, the business they are in and the industry in which they operate. Largely, I don't think advertising, media or website companies have that."
The Hallway's new play almost directly addresses Bleeker's concern. Hall is at pains to stress that what the agency does is uncover the problem behind the problem a business has and goes about finding the best way to solve it. Inherently, that means having that deep understanding of a clients business.
"PR is a big offering for us now but we run our business for the best of the client's business needs," Hall explains. "What we identified was while we understand the technology and creativity and storytelling, we aren't as good at managing the conversation - the nature of the idea is that we think about the media as being a catalyst. That's the kick-start for what must be an an ongoing conversation. We identified that agencies think they can do everything but we know we are not best qualified to manage the ongoing conversation. That's a skill set that people with a PR background understand."
Hall categorically believes that integrating PR into an advertising agency is the way of the future and that more agencies will be doing it soon. The Hallway was able to make the move because of the nimbleness a medium-sized operation has, but he still believes that larger ones will take the plunge. So what's wrong with the scenario as it stands now, with PR being largely separate to advertising?
"The fundamental reason in that you develop an idea and a few things happen," he says. "You are obliged to use the incumbent PR agency. They embrace it but they have their own agenda which has to be seen to add value, which means adapting the idea. Or they embrace it but they don't understand the idea. Or you have to go to a third party and try and get them to execute, but they also need to add their value.
"The clients will drive the shift and it's about effectiveness. Communications initiates and then manages the conversation more effectively. When you have one agency doing it it's more efficient and more effective. There is a replication of skill sets if you bring in another agency - why pay twice?"
While it's important to have a deep understanding of a client's industry, Hall believes that what is holding more agencies back from making this shift is their understanding of the industry that they themselves play in.
"I think one of the difficulties we struggle with in the industry is a lot of businesses are in it and we need to group people to separate them," he explains. "We group people by vertical. If we grouped by output it might change some of the vertical groupings. Where you have PR agencies that are creating ideas that spin into advertising, are they in PR or advertising? They are PR because that's why is says on their website. But their output is not dissimilar to an ad agency. We are consistently see in the ideas space PR and creativity coming closer together - so content and social are the bridge".
Hall hastens to add that it is early days in The Hallway's foray into offering PR and that it has not yet pitched for both advertising and PR sides of a business at the same time, as it's not yet widely known that the agency offers these kind of solutions. Both both Hall and Lee are hoping to be pitching a lot more in 2013 as they look to expand the business. PR is a good feather in the cap to have, but there is one key element that is still missing which would push The Hallway to the next level.
"Definitely what is stopping us becoming a massive agency is getting in a big blue-chip," Hall admits "I would call TAL [The Hallway includes TAL Direct's InsuranceLine brand as a client] a blue-chip, definitely, but that is the next step for us. It's not stopping us being successful but it's the next stage for us. The work we are doing now for TAL will change people's perceptions of that brand. The work we are doing for Tourism Queensland will change perceptions, too. But there is no doubt that the next new business focus for us is a well known advertiser - it is most certainly a big goals for us this year."
The scores on the board from 2012 look like they will help The Hallway achieve its goal. The agency had an 89% growth rate in terms of revenue, won $46 million in new business and won a new client every five weeks on average. It was also selected for Campaign UK's 'The World's Leading Independent Agencies 2013', the only Australian agency to be counted, and made the finals for the AdNews Agency of the Year Awards in the Independent Agency of the Year category. Its move to the new Glebe digs was the icing on the cake.
All of this Hall hopes will be contributing factors to picking up that all important blue-chip, something made more difficult by what he calls an "overcrowded" market.
"The market is overcrowded at the moment but i don't think that removes potential," he says. "I get very frustrated with our industry when we go, 'The client doesn't understand.' Fuck that, it's our job to educate people on why they should do things differently. They are not going to know the conversations we are having in here and that's been a founding principle of this agency. We want to do things differently but have got to explain to people why they need to do it differently. And only when they can quantify the benefit of doing it differently will they be likely to choose to pursue that route. Is it worth pursuing that opportunity? Our growth rate indicates that it is."