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Are advertising and PR friends or enemies?

12th October 2016


The simple answer to the question as to whether PR and advertising are friends or enemies is that they are frenemies. They need each other, but they have to compete against each other. Also, as the two industries evolve, they carry with them negative feelings that stem from the past. As Adam Leigh, strategy director at agency W Communications, says: “Historically, I think it’s undeniable that there’s been a degree of snobbery on the part of ad agencies towards PR. I’ve certainly been part of many multi-agency processes where PR was seen rather patronisingly as some sort of frilly nonsense that gets added at the end.”

But PR is gaining in power, one reason being that earned channels are overtaking paid as the dominant form of media. Leigh describes how PR’s supremacy is rising: “When I talk to clients, the traditional assumption that advertising should lead the agency mix is no longer taken as read. When I talk to friends and colleagues in ad agencies, there’s (underlying the bluster) a growing respect for what PR brings to the table both strategically and creatively – and a greater sense of the potential to apply our thinking.

“After all, generating talkability might have been a breeze in the days when a TV ad was guaranteed to reach tens of millions, but it’s a different matter when the audience you want to reach doesn’t actually watch linear TV at all. And it’s telling that the most garlanded ad agency campaigns of recent years (Volvo Lifepaint, This Girl Can, etc) have had PR baked in from the start.”

Just because it comes more naturally to PR to work with content and influencers does not mean that advertising is happy to simply bow out. Jim Hawker, co-founder of PR agency Threepipe, points out how advertisers and media buyers are trying to muscle in: “As the programmes we are creating move to a more content-, native- and influencer-led programme, then advertising and media-buying agencies are also attempting to gain control of these channels. Advertising and media-buying agencies tend to occupy the more strategic and paid-media ground which is a big threat to PR agencies attempting to break out of the earned-media space.

Whilst advertising and media agencies are trying to syphon off work from PR agencies, PR agencies are also trying to take work away from them. Hawker explains: “Clients historically have always pushed any paid media (of any significant budget) to their media-buying agency and that won’t change any time soon. However, PR agencies do have an opportunity to wrestle creative brand direction from advertising agencies, but this is very reliant on marketing directors being more open minded about where to turn to for advice.“

This may make it sound like there’s a bun fight going on between PR and advertising for budgets, but there is actually plenty of co-operation between the two disciplines. Claire Walker, group CEO at agency Firefly Communications Group, says: “As marketing budgets are squeezed, PR and advertising are getting increasingly cosy to make sure that brands make the most of every single pound.” However, in Walker’s opinion, although PR and advertising must act friendly, PR needs to step up and take control: “PR has built a much broader understanding of the marketing mix, so PR is well placed to influence, or better still lead, marketing strategy discussions. I suggest brands put the PROs in charge.”

PR agency view

How PR and advertising get along

Jamie Stanley, head of content at broadcast agency 4mediarelations: “There’s an old adage in some circles that: “advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for”. Personally, I’m pretty sure PR has never been free, or that many campaigns involve ‘launch, cross fingers, go home’. But that’s by-the-by. The question of whether, in 2016, we in the PR industry are truly friends with those on the other side of the coverage fence isn’t a straightforward one.

“The fact is, the evolution of both disciplines has resulted in more overlap in services between the two than in previous generations. We both now value engagement with campaigns more highly than any other measure of success. We manage client social media channels, agonise over the design of the most miniscule assets and are slaves to the stark reality of 21st century audience metrics.

“Does this intersection mean we are now in greater competition with one another than ever before? Maybe, but I also think that ignorance breeds suspicion. You could say, we feel their pain. So now that we have a larger porthole into life among the ad men, perhaps the 2016 adage should be something along the lines of: “we’re not so different, you and I”.

Alastair Turner, CEO at agency Aspectus PR:  “Advertising and PR have always been about  using creative means to change people’s attitudes or behaviour over time. This won’t change. However, marketing has recently gone through a revolution: the methods we use are completely different to those of even 10 years ago.

Press and broadcast coverage is no longer the sole currency of the PR business. People make major decisions based on what bloggers, social influencers, comparison sites and online reviewers say. They buy cars, take out mortgages and select schools for their children because anonymous online jotters say they should. That’s just as true in the B2B world: corporate buyers regularly use Google when they are putting together a tender list (what else would they use?)

“So you have to make use of the whole marketing mix to make your message heard. And you can’t do this with separate, disconnected approaches – it’s like flying a plane on one engine without knowing you have two others.

“Today ‘communications’ means smart, spreadable content that works across platforms to engage audiences and drive traffic to your site. The best advertising and PR agencies recognise they need a blend of skillsets and are addressing the challenge by recruiting specialist talent or forming multidisciplinary partnerships.”

Alex Warren, senior account manager at PR agency Wildfire: “In order to achieve a truly integrated marketing approach, advertising and PR have to work together to deliver campaigns that promote shared goals and ultimately best serve our clients in the long term. That would be the dream scenario. Unfortunately, in the real world, things are rarely as clear-cut as that. A lot of businesses don’t have the budgets to support both an advertising campaign and a PR campaign simultaneously, and when that happens, PR and advertising must battle it out to prove their superior worth to the client.

“This situation is further complicated by the convergence of the two disciplines online. As ownership of SEO, pay-per-click and social media campaigns are increasingly shared, PROs and advertisers have been forced to eat into each other’s budgets like never before.

“I’m well and truly on the side of PR (as the agency’s latest marketing efforts clearly attest). Despite this however, even I would have to admit that – when it’s achievable – the greatest value always comes from a combined PR and advertising approach. Both disciplines are highly complementary. PR is a great way to generate awareness for an issue, before advertising can dive in and provide a really direct solution. With the right blend of the two, marketers can significantly boost the overall effectiveness of their campaigns.”

Andrew Ferguson, creative director, Ketchum London: “It’s not about being friends or enemies. It’s about differing skillsets. But in the recent years, with the PR scope of work expanding and the cost of producing high-quality content decreasing, there’s been a bit of ‘bleed’ in terms of where roles, skills and scope starts and ends.  

 "Let’s be honest about PR. Our job is in relating to the public. Using topics of interest, relevant trends and the news agenda to engage the audiences that our clients want to speak to. Starting a dialogue – a series of conversations that people want to have with their friends. That particular skillset is particularly pertinent today.

"The problem that we have is that we’re not always gifted in being entertaining or succinct, which is where our cousins in advertising have an edge.  We also don’t have the years of experience in making things like short-form content or reducing complex messages to a single image and some well-placed typography.

"But the blending of the skillsets is the truth of today. We see ATL people operating BTL and engagement experts moving into the realms of broadcast advertising. It’s no bad thing providing we are all able to acknowledge where our skills start and end – to complement and collaborate with one another. There’s no shame in that. That way victory lies for our clients and our agencies.”

In most relationships, there are times when one party is dominant, and right now perhaps that should be PR. In the same way that advertising used to strut around being superior, it is now PR’s turn to take charge.  W’s Adam Leigh quotes some wise words that sum it up nicely: “Martin Sorrell was dead right when he said recently that the PR industry needs to learn a bit more swagger. He might have added that adland should learn a bit of humility, too.”



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