The role of emerging leaders in shaping ‘The Agency’ of tomorrow

By Ellen Deng, Associate Account Director at Icon Agency

‘The Agency’ is once again in a state of flux.

Amidst generation-defining changes - escalating global conflict, political upheaval (with more than half of the world’s population going to polls in 2024), economic recession, the threat of climate change, and now the practical and ethical implications of AI.

It feels like agencies have entered a state of hyper-protection, striving to keep up with the pace of digital innovation.

Against this backdrop PROI's 2023 APAC Regional Summit took place. The organisation celebrated 50 years in 2020, and for the first time in APAC emerging leaders like myself were invited to attend. Given the current state of affairs, there seemed no better time to involve young professionals in futureproofing our industry.

The first session turned a little pessimistic, as we all made collective predictions about the megatrends set to define 2024. Conversations focused on the existential threat AI poses to the traditional service model, as well as the obvious opportunities.

Senior leaders mused that clients would start to demand that agencies lower their costs, or worse, the move towards self-serve AI would render their services obsolete.

Younger leaders worried they would lose their jobs.

One thing was certain: ‘The PR Agency’ is undergoing a once-in-a-generation shift, it’s time to stop beating around the bush about the long-term impact of AI and agree that it will fundamentally reshape how the communications industry operates.

It's reassuring that everyone in the room agreed we need to ride the current, not swim against it.

Evolving landscapes

The PROI APAC Summit meets the brightest communications minds from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Philippines, India, Australia, and Sri Lanka. I learned many things from my counterparts across the region, most importantly, to never complain about a late finish… Looking at you: markets where finishing at 7:00 pm is considered early.

As a region, we're often considered to be the forgotten cousin, dwarfed by our counterparts in America or EMEA. This can impact budget sizes, creative licence, and simply getting a worthy seat at the global table.

But not for much longer; thanks to the democratisation of resources and new technologies like open-source AI, markets in APAC are beginning to even the playing field and, in some instances, surpass the traditional players.

Industry leaders must make active efforts to understand emerging markets, particularly those on our doorstep in Asia Pacific. Building links with other countries, knowledge-sharing and joining forces to move APAC into a position where we can no longer be ignored.

Making room for a diversity of voices

Having made the move from the UK to Australia, I’ve observed the country’s unique status in the region. As a lone euro-centric, English-speaking country flanked by a rainbow of nations - over 3,000 languages are spoken here in APAC - we still have a way to go to make room for outside voices.

It’s no longer beneficial for countries like Australia to operate in a silo, closed off to our neighbours. Take AI adoption as an example. While many Western markets are still catching up on the uptake, countries like Singapore and India are ten paces ahead.

It just goes to show that we need to reach across the borders, and truly listen and learn from countries who have once been denied a voice in our industry.

For me, a 20-something British-Chinese woman working in Australia, I try to incorporate cross-cultural and intersectional perspectives to my work, especially as Australia’s migrant population continues to grow. My perspective, and those of other professionals from POC backgrounds, are markedly different from more dominant voices representing the status quo.

If the industry wants a fighting chance to not only survive, but ensure our work is culturally astute, sensitive and relevant, we must make a concerted effort to include perspectives that actually reflect the makeup of society.

Becoming a jack of all trades and a master of some

We're living in an uncomfortable reality where soon anyone can plug information into an open-source AI platform and ask it to create social posts, press releases and more. Where does this leave comms agencies, and how can emerging leaders reshape ‘The Agency’ of tomorrow?

The answer has been staring at us for years: we must lean into our creative and strategic abilities - our role as experts. AI isn’t capable of having off-the-cuff conversations or uncovering TikTok videos that lead to heartwarming client stories, like this one we did at Icon Agency with Hansen Yuncken about an unlikely viral friendship dubbed ‘crane-tok.

Let’s harness our ability to create original storytelling - before ChatGPT develops a plug-in to do that, too.

It also means we all need to start developing a broad understanding of every discipline that falls under comms: social media, influencers, digital marketing, production, brand, and SEO, to ensure we remain on the cutting edge. Collaborating with our peers in and outside of our own agencies.

For emerging leaders, we must encourage our teams, across all generations, to develop new competencies. Specialists will still exist, but we must champion integration and diversification within the agency model.

Entering a brave new world

To redefine the agency experience, we need to take notes from other industries who are better at selling their expertise. Not all of us are good at that, focusing too much on our ability to generate outputs instead. To truly distinguish the value of an Agency, we need to stop selling our ‘services’ and start selling our invaluable advice.

Turning our craft into newer, more creative channels - from wordsmithing to filmmaking, press conferences to live streaming, and print journalism to digital influencers.

Higher education institutions also have a role to play, preparing the next generation of comms professionals to enter the new world of comms well-equipped. By designing practical modules, encouraging critical thinking and hands-on work experience alongside theoretical approaches to our discipline.

This is an area where emerging leaders and agencies can use their influence to open up new partnerships.

The Agency will endure. That is something we can confidently conclude, so long as we remain open and younger leaders, in particular, continue to face forward and embrace change.

Check out what Jackie and Ellen got up to at the conference in the video below!

PROI conference.mp4