The Innovation SABRE Awards — North America 2020
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Darryl Sparey’s single-minded focus on ensuring every element of communications strategy and every piece of activity leads directly to solid business outcomes for clients sets him apart in an industry which still too often grapples with effective measurement. Sparey, also unlike many in the comms industry, is a business person with a sales background first, and a PR professional second, which makes him ruthless in planning and measuring work for clients. He is also unafraid of looking beyond PR in solving clients’ business problems or helping them meet their ambitions, carrying out everything from SEO to community management. Spotting an opportunity to innovate by combining sales-led marketing with PR – and injecting a welcome dose of creativity into B2B comms – Sparey’s bravery extends to launching an agency dedicated to this approach in the middle of a pandemic. Hard Numbers, which was founded with creative director Paul Stollery in June, has quickly become one of the most noteworthy of the many ex-Hotwire alumni, immediately picking up clients from early-stage start-ups to established martech and fintech players in pitches against far more established global firms. Sparey started his career in media monitoring, leading an MBO of Media Report and then selling it to Precise (now Kantar) before seguing into digital marketing and new business development with Mediaworks and, latterly, Hotwire.
Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry?
The approach to attracting, communicating with and bringing in diverse talent from different backgrounds and different experiences. 2020 was definitely the year that, I believe, agency owners realised they needed to stop paying lip-service to this, and start doing something about it.
How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
We're lagging behind in our adoption and utilisation of technology, no question, and more broadly across other industries as well. Most agencies haven't adopted and utilised the benefits of CRM technology, for example, or marketing automation platforms to help automate reporting and some parts of the workflow. The communications industry also massively under-indexes on its adoption and utilisation of business intelligence (BI) and analytics platforms like Google Data Studio or PowerBI. Everyone is using Zoom or Teams, Dropbox or Egnyte, Google Docs or Microsoft 365 now, that’s not even table stakes for agencies any more.
How have the events of 2020 impacted innovation in the PR and communications industry?
The events of 2020 have dragged many organisations kicking and screaming towards using 21st century technologies, and using these as a platform for remote collaboration and productivity. Lots of organisations, in-house teams and agencies alike, had a strongly presenteeism-oriented culture before the pandemic. The ones that have thrived and will thrive in the future are the ones who set themselves us to work flexibly, in a hybrid fashion, to allow both remote and in-office work. These are the ones that can be more nimble in managing their fixed costs, and managing their resources in future. And these are the ones that will be able to recruit the best talent globally, not just those who live within a 1 hour commutable distance from the office.
Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
I'd love to see more agencies take a risk and try and develop and commercialise their own technology and IP. That's definitely an ambition I have for Hard Numbers, and I'd love to see more agencies trying to do that. There are huge opportunities that exist in the repetitive, time-consuming but uninteresting tasks that all agencies do for their clients. Deploying technology that automates this, and frees staff up to do higher value strategic and creative work represents a huge opportunity for everyone, and where the industry is surely headed in the future.
What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
Organisations that innovate are ones that are willing to take risks, do things differently, embrace optimisation and continuous professional development, and strive for incremental gains in efficiency and effectiveness. And, crucially, if things don't work out, innovative organisations don't have a blame culture, but use failure as an opportunity to learn and improve in future.
Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
It's not changed the way I approach innovation, but it has given me the opportunity, starting my own agency business, to put into practice a number of innovations and improvements to utilisation of technology in the PR workflow that I've previously not been able to do. It's the benefit of starting with a blank sheet of paper, rather than incrementally innovating in a more established agency.
What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
I think micro-certification, remote learning and continuous professional development are key trends for the future, so Manifest's Incite platform this year was a great initiative that speaks to all of these. I think it's a great tool for the industry, it's a bold move which not many other agencies would have the courage to do, and it's had some great content and speakers.
What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
I 100% should not have sold my Bitcoin when it got to over $10,000.
Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
I'm really proud of the Hard Numbers digital PR audit that we launched this year, when we opened the agency. Without giving too much of the game away, it’s a Google Data Studio dashboard, which combines data from Majestic, SEMRush, Opoint and other data sources to give prospective clients a view of the impact that their PR efforts have had on traffic, search engine rankings and other measures. It’s been a great new business tool for the agency, and it's something I developed myself, self-taught on Google Data Studio. There were, admittedly, moments where data formatting between different platforms nearly broke me, but I got there in the end. I think if I can do something like this, anyone can.
Any habit/activity that you have added to your life this year that you hope to take forward post-pandemic?
This has almost nothing to do with communications, but I've joined the growing ranks of PR folks on Peloton this year, and it's been a revelation for me in terms of giving me a regular platform for daily exercise and a reason to do it. I was worried it was going to be the most expensive clothes horse I'd ever bought, but the community aspect of Peloton is really the genius of the product. It keeps people coming back regularly to compete and compare, support and celebrate one another. It's genuinely a brilliantly innovative product, but the real smarts is in the software.
How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and what is the biggest obstacle?
I feel like this year was the year the PR industry really woke up to this, and started trying to do something about it. Initiatives like the Blueprint and PR Fest's Drive pledge are welcome contributions to provide a benchmark and an actionable roadmap to improving diversity and inclusion. Client-side efforts on this front are very welcome too, and there have been some brilliant initiatives from organisations like Lenovo. I think these two kinds of approaches – standards and actionable plans for agencies, and a client-side demand for better visibility of DE&I initiatives – are the things that will continue progress.
What are you thinking about most these days?
When I can get down the pub again.
Your bold prediction for 2021…
2020 is the year that killed predictions!
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