Advertising vs. Public Relations: Round One

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Listen up, ad-agencies: you’re no longer in charge.

And David Ogilvy’s famous quip starts to explain why:

“What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising, not its form.”

You see, ‘content’ has evolved from the Mad Men days of a single-minded proposition designed to sell a product or brand in one tightly-crafted nugget of branded copywriting.

Photo Credit: flickr Creative Commons, Nationaal Archief

With the convergence of media (digital, ATL, outdoor and mobile) driving an unprecedented convergence of communications and a Global Village of hyper-connected people, brands can no longer rely on the single creative ‘Big Idea’ carried via television commercials and matching luggage of advertising applications.

Advertisers who continue to rely on their thirty-second TV spot during Glee, supported by a print ad, perhaps the roadside billboard, or even that direct mail… just won’t survive.

This idea is by no means new. We have seen the evolution of communications over recent years. However, what I believe is missing from the boxing match, is the acknowledgement that PR agencies have been the revolutionaries in driving this through-the-line engagement.

At its heart, Public Relations understands that rather than having one monolithic advertising-led idea, we need to create a cluster of messages, of tactical outputs, and of engagement mechanics, all working for a common goal.

It’s a long tail evolution, though. There is still an obvious appeal to the notion that seeing the same thing in different places will ‘reinforce’ the brand’s messaging and lead to people enacting the call to action. Indeed, advertising theory is still based on the linear funnel.

But, the funnel no longer exists.

As advertising guru Jeremy Bullmore points out: “… a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand[i]”.

So let’s take that further to “no one advertising message, however creatively compelling, will resonate and drive action to the groups of people who are digitally hyper-connected.”

The ye olde notion that PR is advertising’s poor cousin left to gobble the crumbs of the client’s budget once the creative idea has been pitched, is fast disappearing. In effect, the top-down approach has taken a 180 degree turn, and more and more clients are looking at their Public Relations and Communications consultants to drive holistic programs of engagement.

We are seeing clients understand that their target audiences are being influenced by their peers. And this peer-influence is driven by experience. In other words; I bought Tina Fey’s latest masterpiece, Bossypants, based purely on the power of my Twitter friends’ recommendations. And gosh, it’s good!

The Public Relations role is changing largely because of the consumer shift from traditional communications to one that is digital. Many PR professionals are finding it necessary to learn new skills and to examine how social media can impact a brand’s reputation. Sentiment analysis, influencers, message adoption and engagement levels are all metrics we are using to craft and align our clients’ communications outputs. Understanding how our clients’ publics are relating to them, and developing strategies around where we need to move the needle, are now increasingly guiding our clients’ marketing and advertising efforts. We have even seen digital relations lead HR outreach efforts.

Essentially, this digital convergence is leading us to look at communications in a new strategic way. And with a history of Public Relations as a nimble discipline, the Mad Men of advertising agencies are probably feeling pretty nervous and staring into the bottom of their whiskey tumblers right now.

This fundamental power change in the Advertising vs. Public Relations boxing match, is an exciting one and one that personally drove me back to PR rather than moving to another ad agency.

Perhaps the only thing stopping this colossal change of power, is our susceptibility in demonstrating an impact on the bottom line for our clients.

Jeremy Woolf recently made the commentWe have always taken a longer term view to communications and while I agree measurement has been a struggle (reflecting more the unwillingness for companies to spend as opposed to any lack of desire from my profession), this longer term view is where I feel the PR folks add the greatest amount of value.”

Indeed we need to continue to weave effectiveness and measurement into the fabric of our communications strategies. And we are not talking about AVE here. We are talking about making tangible impacts to our clients’ sales, profitability and longevity. Something we are proving more and more.

And I’m certainly onboard this good ship lollipop. Are you?


[i] Quotation from Posh Spice and Persil by Jeremy Bullmore (2001)