But PR has as much to learn from the world of marketing as vice-versa
Last week, I was invited to summarise a discussion on how PR could secure a larger slice of the marketing budget. The debate formed the central theme of a conclave hosted by Godrej and a select audience of its agency partners, in-house teams and some special guests.
One of the highlights for me was a roundtable discussion hosted by Amit Prabhu, Co-founder of PRAXIS and Founding Dean of SCoRE: is PR taken as seriously by brands as other marcom disciplines, how can we secure access to the C-suite, why isn’t it as ‘sexy’ as marketing or advertising?
My view on the subject is that friction between the marketing/advertising world is nothing new; it’s inevitable particularly since we are increasingly competing for the same budget allocation. Following the afternoon’s discussions, here’s my take on the issue:
- What the PR world can learn from the world of marketing
- Aesthetics: Advertising agencies’ presentations are compelling, often choreographed and always beautiful. Advertising professionals are masters at making the aesthetics count; they would never consider cutting and pasting together a slide set with alternating typefaces and poorly designed clip art. PR professionals often compromise their strategic thinking with uninspiring, dull decks and even worse delivery. Remember, aesthetics count!
- Data, data and more data: “Send in the ‘quants’ (the expert in numbers and ‘quantitative’ statistics) guy” is a common refrain among many an Account Director, when clients endlessly deliberate on a proposal. The use of data by ATL professionals – from statistical inferences to quantitative primary research – is a lesson to all PR professionals on how to nail a proposal (and a client) to the wall. Our insights and propositions may be intuitive, but are those grounded in as much rigour?
- Process: Yes, creativity really is a process. The ad world is full of it, from planners and copywriters to researchers and account managers, all teams are structured around clear roles and processes. While this structure cannot be directly transferred to the world of PR – where everyone is client facing – there is much to commend in the ATL system – especially in the areas of operationalising creativity and quality control.
- What the PR world could teach the world of advertising and marketing
- Real time: Yes, we are 24h, reactive, responsive and flexible. PR people are hard wired to other people’s agendas – whether that means a timeline, a point of view or a priority. Not a quality one would typically associate with the more ‘precious’ world of advertising.
- Ongoing: It’s ‘in between’ the product launch, the seasonal campaign and the corporate announcement that the PR agency really reveals itself. For a great PR agency, there is always news, especially when there is no news. PR’s capacity to identify and associate the brand with the right conversations relieves us from product schedules and launch dates. Unlike marketing, every day is potentially a news day.
- We deal with crises: Enough said. If there is a fire in your operation or a strike on your production line, don’t bother calling the ad agency!
- We are flexible: Change of CEO (done), change of strategy (done), change of portfolio (done), all done before the ad agency’s creative head has returned from his or her lunch break!
- We are discrete: Yes, not everything we do gets spoken about at Cannes; but it doesn’t make it any less creative or less valuable. Most PR people don’t feel comfortable in the headlines; for us, it’s our clients who are the real protagonists.
The question I am then obliged to ask myself is: where would I rather be? The glamourous, ‘visible’ side of ATL and marketing or on the ‘behind-the-scenes’, intangible side of PR?
In a market owned by Google and Facebook, where unprecedented levels of ad blockers and filters are rendering paid campaigns virtually meaningless, whose ‘celebration of creativity’ every year at Cannes is increasingly dominated by mathematicians and big data experts, I think that PR is a great place to be right now.
If ad agencies are undergoing an existential crisis since they no longer monopolise the media, PR people never owned it in the first place! We always had to beg, persuade, convince journalists to cover our clients. In a world dominated by ad blockers and content filters, ad agencies are facing the same challenge and they are way less prepared for it than we are.
On his return from the annual ad industry awards festival at Cannes in 2015, Jeff Goodby (founder and co-chairman of the ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners) wrote a poignant (or pathetic) lament for The Wall Street Journal. In the past, he said, the only true measure of success was whether the public knew and cared about your (his) work. “You could get into a cab and find out, in a mile or two, whether you mattered in life, just by asking the driver.” Now, “No one knows what we do any more.”
Never mind cab drivers, hands up, those whose families actually know and understand what PR professionals actually do? The ad world is just finding out a reality which PR professionals have lived since the beginning! No one knows exactly what we do. But people certainly notice public relations in its absence.
I believe that we are entering a new age of PR; one where we should be asserting our distinct skills and insights on the marketing community. We can certainly learn from such disciplines – from their aesthetics to their use of data – but our survival will not be assured by simply mimicking ad land. We need to play to our strengths:
- We are real time and flexible
- We are discreet; our clients remain the protagonists
- We fill in the gaps and make brands relevant regardless of their predicament (beyond their product or service)
- In many instances, we ensure meaning to employees, partners, investors, communities who may never use (or have even seen) our clients’ products
I can’t guarantee that the wider public will understand (even less, appreciate) what we do. However, in a world dominated by ad blockers, fake news, peer-to-peer communications, disintermediation, the ability to actually persuade people will become more important not less.