What PR agencies can learn from Ad agencies

Re-posted from Reputation Online blog 15 June, 2011

There’s a lot of talk about what ad agencies can learn from PR agencies, with their heritage of two-way communication and the feedback loop. But, as I work at a PR agency, I’m more interested in what I can learn from those in ad land.

Here are five things the world of PR should most definitely consider:

1. Specialists providing specific expertise to clients

Ad agencies have those who are best at managing projects, those who are experts at creative, those who can strategise, and those who can take clients on a journey through a campaign.  Truly great PR, in the digital age, also requires specific knowledge that cannot be quickly picked up by generalists alone.   As such, the PR structure defined by seniority (account exec through to senior account director) may too be best replaced by a specialism-based structure.

2. Creative Research

Traditional PR’s creative research often goes as far as a brainstorm, digital PR might go as far as a one-off listening report. Ad agencies are more consistent about creative research because they ultimately produce a creative execution. However, the more you put in, the more you get out, and PRs would benefit from taking the research phase not just before a pitch, but before any thought-generation work equally seriously.

3. Working closely with the client through the proposal process

I’m not saying all ad agencies do this, but the potential backlash at the end if they fail to do this and their idea doesn’t hit a home-run is ruinous.  Yet it is basic psychology that people buy into what they feel involved with. However, often PRs, in trying to prove they are as creative as those across the marketing mix, often shut the client out until the big reveal.

4. Having as many people working on planning as execution

Of course this may be a bit much to ask for in PR, while still balancing the books. Certainly the high number of brand planners has come about for specific reasons in ad agencies, which are usually planning rather that roll-out focused. But, the principle is strong.  That is, that looking ahead at both developing the brand you are concerned with, and your own future work for the client, is as important as what you are up to in the present for them. This idea has never been more important than now, with new technologies and capabilities popping up, largely being spawned via new social media platforms.

5. Produce

Ad agencies & PR agencies now both produce: ideas, views, interactions, buzz for brands.  Where they are traditionally different is that PR agencies have been built over time on producing coverage for clients; and ad agencies have been build on providing creative executions.  The question PR agencies now need to ask themselves is: “In this age, where ‘coverage’ per se is declining in value to clients, and creative executions that can work across channels are rising in value; how long can they afford not to be built around producing content?”  I don’t believe all PR agencies need to follow the Weber Shandwick model (proposed by the very talented Ben Padfield) of creating dedicated content powerhouses that sell content to clients, but a middle-road is crucial.

I was fortunate to begin my career as a fresh-faced account assistant at Cake Group which (partly because one of its founders is a former ad man, Mark Whelan) always had a hybrid ad/PR agency vibe, complete with art department, creative director, planners and sometimes in-house production capabilities.

At the time that hybrid approach was a bit of an anomaly and in some ways an experimental luxury.  Now, due to the amazing opportunity and challenge for PR agencies that the digital age has provided, the more fluid multi-specialist approach or the ability to pull on many different specialisms, via a network, is becoming a must.

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