MIAMI — While specialist skills are critical in today's PR landscape, independent PR firms often place a higher premium on the attitude and passion of the talent they hire, heard delegates at today's Independent PR Firm Forum at the PRovoke16 Global PR Summit.

During a lively discussion on talent requirements, the heads of some of the world's top independent firms came to a consensus about this.  "Attitude and culture are more important than the skills and knowledge," said SPRG founder and chairman Richard Tsang. "I prefer people who can all-round see the big picture. Specialist skills are easy to recruit."

This, said Mojo PR co-founder and managing partner Tara Rogers, is particularly important in an era when millennials are comfortable switching jobs to create their own careers. "Every single person that joins Mojo has the opportunity to be a partner," she said, noting that the transient nature of the Middle East PR market means that she wants executives to "take Mojo with them" when they return home.

When it comes to older staff, meanwhile, agencies need to be "ruthless" about the need to reskill, said IN.FOM founder Mike Liew, adding that the independent firms do not have the luxury of carrying passengers.

"I’m afraid we have to be ruthless," said Liew. "If there is someone on my team who has difficulty upskilling themselves, then we need to have a very frank chat."

Yet hiring challenges persist, particularly when PR firms are trying to sell themselves as a viable career path for younger talent. That much became clear at an earlier session when long-established independents discussed threats to their business.

"Millennial and Gen Z are starting to say — shall I do this for you or shall I do this for myself?" said rbb Communications CEO Christine Barney. "That’s a challenge."

Another threat that persists are more competition, especially other types of agencies (such as ad agencies, digital shops and management consultants) actively competing with PR firms. "We fear we are going to face competition from mangement consulting firms — because they have a lot of C-suite access, and they try to offer the whole package," noted FSB CEO Flavio Castro.

Many PR firms, of course, are addressing this challenge by bringing in non-traditional skills. Two of the firms on stage — rbb and French/West/Vaughan — used acquisition to bridge this gap. "Clients want everything faster and I didn’t feel there was time to organically build these skills from within," said Barney, regarding rbb's acquisition of an advertising agency and a digital firm.

As for French, despite a string of acquisitions, he sees just as much competition from clients themselves as from competing disciplines. "The reality is we compete with in-house resources," he said. "We need to think in terms of creative complexity and innovation and using big data and research to craft solutions they may not have time to think about. Competition isn’t so much from other agencies these days. Clients will find good ideas. It’s justifying your place at the table."

Specialist skills remain a big part of this puzzle, but firms were warned against simply hiring without first understanding what they are selling.

"Instead of hiring a bunch of analytics people, it’s about actually understanding what your analytics offer is," said WE Communications international president Alan VanderMolen.