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The Cold War between PR and advertising agencies is hotting up, says Weber Shandwick’s, Colin Byrne

8th October 2013


I am so pleased that the Cannes Festival of Creativity is now a fixture in my calendar. A holiday for the brain, if not the liver, with sunshine and blue sea thrown in.

This year I was not only delighted to collect a gold Lions for a public affairs campaign – proving that creativity is about the whole of our industry, not just consumer marketing – but also to see my sister ad agency, McCann, pick up the Grand Prix in the PR category and 27 other awards for the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die public safety campaign.

Along with Daft Punk's Get Lucky, the campaign song became the soundtrack to the festival. I toasted the creative behind the event at a beach party and life was good. I don't agree with his views on our industry though. In an interview he was asked: “Could a PR agency have conceived the campaign?” His reply was: "No, PR agencies don't hire the type of people who think up these [creative] ideas. They hire people that activate, that expand on this type of thinking."

Truth is the Cold War between PR and advertising is hotting up. We are moving from multi- channel to channel neutral, the lines between communications disciplines are blurring and brands are becoming their own content publishers, bypassing traditional media, which sells advertising space to survive, altogether.

Some PR agency heads spent much of Cannes grumbling into their chilled rosé about another bloody ad agency winning the top PR Lion. Others like me look and learn.

Advertising has done three things better than PR up to now – putting creativity at the centre, analytics and insights, and understanding the businesses of their clients as opposed to just their communications needs.

There have been several PR agency responses to the collective creative insecurity our industry suffers from. These are what I call the “pink, plaster cow syndrome”, where you give your agency a wacky name and stick a weird and wonderful piece of artwork in reception to show how creative you are. Then there are those who rethink the model, move creative from the side-lines to the centre, link it to insights and analytics, and put a senior creative at the top of the firm to drive it with real authority. (I am about 20 per cent guilty of the first one with the ubiquitous three-day stubble chin and shaved head, but hopefully 80 per cent the second one.)

We also have to reinvent the creative process, moving away from brainstorms with a flip chart in an area that could be a hospital waiting room, and embrace more than the usual suspects in the process. Around 60 per cent of the average PR firm's staff will be millennial, many of those will be digital natives, so let’s get them more involved. Creativity doesn't start and stop in London – my chief creative officer is from Bucharest.

We have to stop moaning about ad agencies, stop affecting creativity, and start remodelling our business to empower the creatives and drive the next wave of great, compelling ideas.

Colin Byrne, CEO, UK & EMEA, Weber Shandwick



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