Last week I was a judge at the Asian Marketing Effectiveness Awards, a sort of AP Cannes I guess, and I was in equal parts encouraged and dismayed for the PR industry.
The good news is that regularly in the two-day jury session, leaders of renowned ad agency groups made comments like; “this is a PR type idea isn’t it,” or, “that’s a bit old school and they haven’t thought through whether it makes PR sense too.” Some of the best campaigns in the non-PR category had hugely significant PR elements really well baked in. Colenso BBDO’s work for Monteith’s Cider or Clemenger BBDO’s work for Victoria Bitter (congrats to BBDO for being the “winningest” agency in Asia Pacific by the way) both used PR as an integral part of an idea that worked across bought media, earned media and social.
And it is also true that campaigns in the social media and events & sponsorship categories could have been entered by the more technically and creatively leading-edge PR firms (though they weren’t as it happened) and, yes, there is still an occasional naive belief that PR’s role is just to amplify a naff ad or promotion, but the best ad agencies are way beyond that. And that’s great news for our industry because what we do is taken very seriously now in marketing and in advertising agencies as we always hoped it would be.
But that’s where the good news stops. Because, with one or possibly two exceptions, the entries by PR agencies and PR departments were AWFUL. Badly written, no video supporting the entry summarizing the key points and almost always, little or no results volunteered. “How do we judge this” was the slightly bemused comment from my fellow jurists to yet another tatty entry from a PR firm. They wanted to take us seriously as key players in their marketing world, but we were making it impossible for them to do so.
And I know too well the excuses for not making the effort to enter marketing industry rather than PR industry awards, so let me relate a few of them and then respond in classic “interview your own keyboard” style:
- “Marketing is only one part of PR so it’s not such a big deal”: Marketing budgets do and will always dwarf corporate communications budgets and more Chief Marketing Officers sit on boards of major companies than Corporate Communication Officers and that will not change any time soon no matter how much we bleat about it. So let’s continue to look down our corporate noses at marketing communications or just not commit enough to the area and as we do, kiss goodbye to the single biggest opportunity for our industry and the people in it.
- “The awards are judged by ad agencies who prefer their own and don’t get what we do”: They totally get the value of what we do and in my experience are not only fair to us but generous too; it’s just that a lot of the time now, they are doing marketing and brand PR as well as us and certainly entering it into awards in a much more professional manner.
- “We save our best entries for the PRWeek or Holmes Awards”: Good thinking. Way to go. Know how many CMOs read PRWeek or have heard of the SABREs? A lot less than you think. Enter the awards that are watched by the people with the big marketing budgets, not just your boss and the PR headhunting firm.
- “Often we were given the idea by the marketing client or ad agency and just got to amplify it”: Whose fault is that? How many times do PR agencies field planners or creatives or use research to drive insight? And how often do PR clients ask for these things and, if they do, how many of them are willing to pay for it? Not often , so why should we be trusted with strategy or the big idea? Because we had a hunch or interviewed a few journalists and bloggers? Planning is a distinct area and a different skill set and requires investment. I know I used to be one. More PR agencies need to hire more of them and fast.
- “We don’t get the budget the ad agencies do”: Currently we mostly don’t deserve it… see above point for reasons.
- “PR agencies (like Edelman) are now buying media too so we are gaining influence and power in marketing whatever it might look like in awards ceremonies”: true, but 99% of the time these spends are tactical and rarely driving a big strategic brand idea
- “Ad agencies don’t get crisis or issues situations and aren’t thinking about the impact of product issues on the corporate brand or wider stakeholders”: This in my experience remains broadly true, but is a peripheral issue for most brands most of the time. You can’t drive competitive differentiation for a mobile service provider by having a great crisis communications plan at the ready.
The PR industry has had a great opportunity to take on a more strategic role in marketing over the last few years. Driven by the infinite capability of search to allow anyone to know everything about anything at any time and the arrival of social media which has revolutionized how people come together in community and the content forms they consume and share when they are there, PR thinking is indeed the future of marketing communication. Our time should be now. And that’s without even throwing in the collapse of the old divides between product and corporate brand, and between employees and customers, or the impact of activist shareholders, interventionist regulators, and NGOs and all those other things we handle so well.
But, our failure as an industry, to master a consistent delivery of insight and planning (with a few exceptions) has meant we are no nearer to being brand custodians. Our failure (again, with a few exceptions) to invest in creative people and processes that can imagine and then produce and deliver big brand ideas has meant we largely remain on the sidelines while the ad agencies get better and better at integrating PR thinking and execution into their offer.
It’s as if we collectively thought that the arrival of social media and the democratization of influence that that heralded, and the few (truly deeply competent) digital teams we built around this was enough to give us lead-agency status. That was an opportunity for sure. But we have, on the whole, failed to grasp it as an industry.
At Edelman we have been investing significantly to bridge this gap for a while now and I know of a number of other agencies and brave and smart people on the client side that are doing the same. We have more and more planners and creative directors throughout our network (and not just one banner name in New York) and on the social side, deeper and more proficiently technical digital teams and, yes, we buy media too. And we have a growing insight capability in Edelman Berland that is spreading into more and more of our offices. As the biggest PR firm in the world and an independent, we have the luxury to be able to do this. And I know other firms have similar plans or have done the same. But my plea to the industry is to speed it all up because the ad guys are coming fast from the other direction and they are making a pretty good job of it from what I have seen over the last couple of years and Asia Pacific is at the very epicentre of this.
Australia and New Zealand ad agencies are leading the charge, but I am witnessing great PR thinking style campaigns, beautifully integrated now coming out of ad agencies in Southeast Asia (especially Thailand) and India as well. I rarely saw this done as well in Europe and Richard Edelman tells me it is rare to find in the US too.
One of the measures of future success as an industry in all this will be when a PR firm wins the Best Integrated Campaign Award at the AMEs and, why not, Cannes, but for now it would be great to just judge the PR section without wincing.
Congratulations to One Green Bean for this winner in the PR Category by the way. Great campaign idea (of which the client said they were an equal originator) and seamless and brilliant integration with the ad agency.
Photo credit: The Festival of Asian Marketing Effectiveness