PR’s time to lead

Pictured: Harris Diamond, CEO McCann-Erickson. 

Richard Edelman will make a speech in Melbourne next week at the World PR Forum in which he will say it is PR’s time to lead and he will support this with his usual eclectic analysis of global cultural, political and media events and some examples of where PR thinking has changed the direction and strategy of some big firms.  We need to move our clients and employers from ‘perception management’ to real action addressing real issues he will say.  It’s a cracker so look out for it.

Serendipitously, this morning I noticed that my previous boss, Harris Diamond at Weber Shandwick,  has moved up to take over ailing global ad firm McCann-Erikson, the centerpiece of the IPG colossus in which Harris’ highly successful Weber Shandwick and Golin Harris firms find themselves encased.  And this too proves Richard Edelman’s point I think.

Harris is a PR guy – latterly he has been running more than PR firms, but he is a PR guy, and he now leads one of the great global ad firms.  Why?   Well other than his brilliant personal qualities, I think two reasons.

The first is Richard’s point; that in the era of enfranchised consumer and stakeholder and when everyone now ‘gets’ the need to engage and change strategy based on the long term needs of stakeholders and consumers, it is PR thinking not advertising thinking that is best placed to succeed.  Note, I’m labeling advertising thinking as the problem, not necessarily advertising agencies.  Many ad agencies are getting very good at PR thinking, where they listen, engage, create and (occasionally even) co-create content with consumers rather than just buy space and broadcast.

Many/most advertising agencies do not do this however.  So Harris will immediately bring huge content value to McCann.

The second reason is much more mundane, but arguably more powerful.  PR people can now run businesses of scale.  Weber Shandwick is around $600 million in fees.  Golin is around $150 million.  And the CMG unit Harris ran which included some other firms like Jack Morton and Futurebrand took his business north of $1 billion.  Edelman is about to breach the $750 million barrier and we are planning on what we need to do to get to $1 billion.

PR people run big businesses now and, if you net out the media spend and compare fee for fee and like for like, the big PR firms are not much smaller than the ad agencies and pretty much as global.  And the PR industry has lately spawned a generation of leaders who have managed this rise in revenues across multiple markets.  And we know how to manage downturns and we know how to create process and systems and structure that can provide a comfortable home for thousands of employees and a network that delivers extraordinary value to clients.  This was far from the case just a few years ago, when most PR businesses were appallingly run.  And clients are loathe to trust important business decisions to people who can’t run businesses.

The leaders of the big PR agencies can now match the big ad agencies in global business and management skills.  PR thinking I believe is the future of advertising thinking.   So Harris is the natural pick for McCann-Erickson and IPG (the next move)?  And he won’t be the last is my free prediction.

My top tip for anyone at McCann who will be meeting Harris in the next few days and weeks is make sure you know how to forecast your revenues; make sure you know your cost base; make sure you are intimately connected with your clients and their needs and make sure you do quality work, because he can sniff BS a mile away!

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