Can PR agencies replace ad agencies?

The marketing space is unsettled these days, and it’s no wonder why. The boundaries between traditionally separate entities are functionally indistinguishable as far as consumers are concerned. The average consumer doesn’t care where a piece of content comes from so long as it’s interesting.

This helps explain the rationale behind why so many traditional PR agencies are increasingly offering advertising-type services; one key way to capture the attention of your audience is to create something relevant, rather than having to wait for a client to do something interesting enough to warrant attention. Why wait for an opportunity when you can create one?

The rationale is sound enough, but this inevitably leads to PR agencies competing in the same space as advertisers—a group that has been in the business of content development from the very beginning. Can PR agencies replace ad agencies?

No, they cannot.

Why PR agencies shouldn’t play in advertising

The biggest challenge facing PR agencies is a structural one. PR agencies simply aren’t organized to produce excellent creative work.

PR agencies swell with ranks of junior account executives who retain duties similar to one another including media relations, report compilation, media strategy, etc. A key feature of successful advertisers is the delegation of responsibilities to suit individual strengths. A PR account executive on the other hand must be a jack-of-all-trades; trouble arises when those “trades” continue to increase in number. Not only is the media landscape becoming more complex, requiring more attention and care, but the other non-core expectations placed on them also increase daily. With PR agencies making concerted efforts to act like ad agencies, does senior management expect their account executives to serve quadruple duty as project managers, account service, strategists and creatives?

PR Comic

The answer is obviously no. Even though you will often hear about the opportunities afforded to junior staff to push the envelope, no one honestly expects account executives to make good creatives.  The solution then is obvious: hire creatives separately.

Then you hit a wall. Where do you place these creatives? If you hire a junior creative, that creative is likely to become a designer—not a professional responsible for idea creation. Account executives will inevitably come to the designer with task briefs, not strategy briefs. And many of those task briefs will be to “freshen up this PowerPoint presentation.” This is not an ideal environment for creating award-winning campaigns rivaling those of shops with existing structures in place to foster creativity.

But what if you hire a senior creative? Do you plan on giving that creative a team? The business realities of most PR agencies would suggest no, you wouldn’t. Hiring a senior creative is expensive. Giving that creative a small team is even more expensive. Finally, refocusing your business development on securing paid-media projects is another major investment. This is to say nothing of the investment required on project delivery and strategy—both key components in securing your bottom line and rationalizing your activities to a numbers-conscious CMO. Doing all this at once would be a risk for any business.

Then again, if you don’t do this all at once, you end up with a creative team catering to the needs of the big money makers for the agency: earned media. Almost immediately, a strategic hire for any agency must prove his or her worth. If he or she isn’t given the resources to pursue the agency’s publicly-stated strategic goals, then the senior creative must target lower-end activities in support of the agency’s bread-and-butter operations. Suddenly the agency’s Facebook posts look a lot prettier, but it will still struggle to develop creative targeting the paid space—an area with which they are generally unfamiliar.

Similar problems face strategists in senior roles within PR agencies. They can propose effective solutions to their clients’ business problems, but their own agency may very well lack the capacity to launch integrated marketing campaigns. Theoretically, these agencies could start launching them (we all have to start somewhere), but without a nice case study to back up the proposal, PR agencies will find themselves outclassed by more experienced ad agencies.

Then there’s pricing. The advertising world is already cost competitive for quality work. A PR agency might risk trying to win a pitch by offering a 10% discount on the work in order to build experience, but what are the odds that their first effort will be successful enough to develop future business? It’s a precarious situation for the PR agency’s MD who must meet certain revenue and margin figures each year.

Another over-looked but important reason why PR doesn’t adequately match against advertising is culture. PR is an industry which hinges on real time events. Crises, media updates, Twitter feeds and other sources of fast moving data mean that there’s little time in PR to sit down and strategize and even less time to sit down and brainstorm with colleagues or subject experts–especially if clients aren’t paying for it.

The best ad agencies work in a different way, because in truth, there’s no such thing as an advertising emergency. An ad that goes out a week from now will likely have the same impact as an ad that goes out two weeks from now. That’s not to suggest that ad agencies are all relaxed environments; they’re not, but at least there’s more emphasis on strategically sound delivery as opposed to immediate delivery, which is an absolute requirement in the earned media world.

Where the real value of PR lies

Competitive advantage is a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t hire a plumber to fix my car even though plumbers and mechanics can both be described as contractors. In the same way, I wouldn’t ask an SEO expert to conduct media relations for me.

The desire to compete with PR agencies is understandable, but what exactly do PR agencies bring to the table that is new? Ad agencies have always been very good at telling interesting stories. As much as PR people love to talk about storytelling, the old guard excels at building brands from the ground up. If ad agencies make the noise, PR agencies can amplify it, serving as an ROI multiplier.

But continuing to hammer away at media relations is a sure path to ensuring that your service offering is commoditized (though I’d argue that may already be the case). What can PR agencies do to expand their revenue (and keep the holding company happy)?

  • Measurement. PR value has always been a nebulous topic. Front page coverage on Time magazine is obviously valuable, but what’s the dollar value? How can a CMO, CFO or CEO justify the expensive of media relations when they don’t have a clearer recognition of ROI? A sure way to increase revenue for PR is to convincingly demonstrate the real value of positive PR coverage, i.e. how such coverage impacts sales. This is where analytics comes in. Without them, it’s far easier to slash a PR budget than it is to slash a paid media budget for which analytics are bountiful.
  • Journalistic Content. If PR account executives know one thing, it’s journalism. By regularly scouring the media landscape, PR people are intimately familiar with the types of journalistic content that appeals to a large audience. If PR wants to expand into paid media, it ought to do so in areas it’s already familiar with, such as advertorials, not sponsored videos, banner ads or complex campaign activations requiring heavy creative support.
  • Real Time Response. Encompassing customer service and crisis communications, real time response is definitely a competitive advantage for PR agencies. Given that pretty much all PR executives are plugged into real time data streams, it makes sense that PR own that particular space. Leave brand building to the ad agencies which have spent over a century crafting enduring, heritage brands. But when there’s a crisis? I’m hiring a PR agency.
  • Specialization. Some industries get more value out of PR than others. Finance in particular is an ever-important sector for the PR agency because the key stakeholders in finance read news. For them, a press release is far more relevant than an equivalent release targeting buyers of shampoo. Tech, finance and several other industries require specialists to effectively reach their target audiences. Rather than trying to be a panacea for all marketing problems, PR should focus on areas where they have the greatest effect on the customer journey.

The areas above represent PR agencies’ competitive strengths–areas where traditional advertising agencies couldn’t possibly hope to compete in a meaningful way. Edelman itself has come out in support of the idea of strengthening PR’s core proficiencies. To quote president and CEO of Edelman, Richard Edelman:

We are playing a broader role, but we have to focus in our area of comparable advantage. Clients want specialist expertise and the opportunity to choose best in class partners. We are happy to work with advertising agencies, CRM and media buying firms for the betterment of clients.

At the end of the day, no one goes to ad agencies for media relations. Why would I go to a PR agency for an ad?


Millennials are the worst generation ever

Millennials are the worst. Also known as Generation Y (Gen Y), millennials are those little whelps born some time between the 80’s and the 00’s. They are said to be civic-minded narcissists who are addicted to technology. They are the salvation of humanity and its downfall. But that’s not why they are the worst generation ever. Millennials are awful not because they did anything wrong. Indeed, they’ve had very little time to do anything at all.

Millennials are the worst generation ever because of the massive body of literature written about them.

If I see another article about millennials (excluding this one), I promise I’m going to do something about it.1

This blog is designed with value in mind. Value for you, dear reader. Here are some examples of brilliant articles written about millennials. How they’ll save the world. How they’ll destroy the world. How they might do both. I’ve also included a one sentence summary of the article’s content so you don’t have to bother actually reading it. You’re welcome.

LinkedIn:  “I am a Millennial and I am addicted to Technology.”

“I’m a narcissist, but it’s so much easier to blame my age group.”

LinkedIn: “Are you a Millennial leader?”

“Here’s a list of common sense things a leader should do regardless of age.”

NPR: “Social Distrust Blooms Among Millennials, But Where Are Its Roots?”

“Young people have a lot of debt and not a lot of job opportunities, so they tend not to trust others. Go figure.”

WSJ: “Video: Millennial Women Still Face Career Hurdles”

“This attention grab is brought to you by PricewaterhouseCoopers.”

Bloomberg: “Millennials Shunning Malls Speeds Web Shopping Revolution”

“Reporter’s friend buys toothpaste online; isn’t that crazy!”

The Atlantic: “How to Win Millennials: Equality, Climate Change, and Gay Marriage”

“Young people are mostly liberal” – Mostly liberal publication

Huffington Post: “Huff Post: Millennials”

“We write enough nonsense about millennials to warrant an entire content category on our site.”

Real Talk:

  • There is of course value in talking about demographics as singular entities, but discussions about millennials have gotten ridiculous. Whenever I read an article about millennials (in spite of myself), I wonder who the hell the authors are talking about. Last I checked, I was born in 1988, which places me at the center of the millennial generation. After spending two hours staring into a mirror, I ask myself, am I really a narcissist?
  • What I find even more fascinating here is that the word “millennial” automatically makes an article click-bait. You want to get something upvoted in the comments section? Just compliment millennials for inheriting such a mess from the Boomers and Gen X.  You’ll find yourself with young people actually thanking you for acknowledging their plight. Maybe we are narcissists!
  • From a marketing perspective, good strategists tend to avoid broad discussions about millennials. Human behavior hasn’t changed that much in the past 20 years. We’re just focusing less on TVC’s and more on social media. This isn’t a problem if marketers remember than an idea sits at the core of any great activation. If anything, the shift to digital has placed the importance of great ideas in stark relief. After all, the branded nonsense you send out to the world is competing with cat pictures and guys getting kicked in the nuts. Bear this in mind. Your infographic about financial education suddenly seems less compelling by comparison.

One final point: the title of this article is click-bait. You clicked on it. Reflect on that for a moment. Did you come to this article to learn about millennials or to argue as one?


1 i.e. overreact and leave a comment with a lot of impotent rage and spelling mistakes


Childlike Strategists

Are good account planners childlike?

I’ve met a few great strategists and have followed others online. More often than not, these strategists tend to have an almost child-like sense of wonder, if not sense of humor.

Now, my sample size may be rather small, but if there were a correlation between good creative briefs and a certain sense of wonder, I wouldn’t be surprised. It makes sense that an account planner has a strong inner child.

I’ve heard that at the core of every joke is an insight. This is because within every joke is a human truth, something that is true enough to make us take notice and laugh along. Jokes strip away the nonsense and get right the truth of the matter.

Children are great because they haven’t developed the filters that keep adults grounded in reality. In the skies, we see clouds; they see castles. On the beach, we see sand; they see… more castles.

The point is, if we seek to improve our view of the world with the aim of building good strategy, perhaps a good tactic is to drop pretense and try to view the world as a child might.

That’s not a stapler; it’s a plasma gun. And those interns? Space aliens.

This may very well be me trying to convince myself to buy a Lego set for the office. So long, productivity.

The most stereotypical LinkedIn article you’ll ever read

From the front page of LinkedIn today:

5 lessons every startup should learn from the German football team

Don’t click the link bait, please. Let me run down those five lessons for you here:

  1. Determination (Deep insight that.)
  2. Learn from the Competition (Wow!)
  3. Flexibility (You mean I’m not supposed to mindlessly pursue a single activity forever? Hold on, I’m taking notes)
  4. Keep all eyes on the goal (BRB. Need to rescind company-wide policy of neglecting goals)
  5. Seize all opportunities, score all goals, be limitless (I hate this entire list, but I particularly hate this one. It amounts to: do good and make money. It reminds me of my favorite strategy from chess: win.)

Today’s lessons:

  • Avoid LinkedIn if you enjoy impactful commentary.
  • Don’t hang your hat on relevant events if what you’re saying is entirely irrelevant.


Here are some of the comments from the article:

  • “Well said… Brilliant, in fact.”
  • “keep smashing it till the final whistle ?”
  • “The group doesn’t rely on 1 or 2 individuals, it’s their ability to play & interact to gether that makes a stronger team … just like in business, teamwork and good relationship between coworkers usually creates positive spirit and results.”
  • “Release fast, release often, and iterate” – Can’t agree more.”
  • “I like you analysis – succinct and relevant. Thankest :-)”

But all hope is not lost:

  • “Corniest article ever.”

Survey says Thailand happier in wake of coup

From Wall Street Journal:

Happiness Returning To Thailand, Says Survey


So what?

It’s not often that a military junta makes such a public show of boosting its PR capabilities, but that’s just what happened in Thailand in recent months. Now there’s a bigger question. Do people feel more safe and secure due to military-imposed law and order, or was the Thai Army’s Happiness campaign responsible? (Probably both)

What to look for:

  • Brands don’t hold a monopoly on projecting an image. Whereas brands try to sell goods or services, governments must sell their legitimacy to their populations
  • In other words, brands take note. If successful, these military activities may translate into something of a handbook for corporate crisis communications–a strange paradox given the not-so-stellar track record of military juntas
  • Expect continued events and activities within Thailand to reflect a “kinder, gentler” military. Also expect major PR pushes with both domestic media (to appeal to the local populace) and major international wires and publications (to bring confidence to foreign investors)
  • More scantily clad women?

5 Tips from a Social Media Ninja

The social media revolution is upon us. Just ask anyone how they spend the majority of their time, and they’ll say surfing social media networks like Facebook or Myspace. Successful businesses are taking note with many CMO’s citing social media as being the single most important thing they think about at night, behind branding, distribution and traditional advertising.

After all, most people want to hold earnest conversations with the brands they know and love. Consequently, there is an increasing demand for experts who know the ins-and-outs of the dynamic world of social media. Here are five types for getting social media to work for (and not against!) your business:

#1 – Have a social media presence.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it is. And yet, there are literally thousands of self-appointed social media experts and gurus out there who derive credibility for lists such as this one. The fact that you read past that horrid introduction is a bad sign. But who knows? Maybe it’s early and you haven’t had your morning coffee yet. Or you’re recovering from open heart surgery. No worries. We all have bad days.

#2 – Post content regularly.

Another simple, but topic-rich suggestion for… Oh dear. You’re still reading.

#3 – Engage with your customers.

Respond to your customers’ feedback! And here you are. Still reading. You should know something, friend. This entire article is not what you thought it was—a clear road map for “cracking” social media, from a knowledgeable millennial1. It’s a joke. A ruse. At your expense.

What? Were you expecting a social media ninja? Listen, I don’t know what your business objectives are, but unless they are heralding another Meiji Restoration, you don’t need a ninja. You certainly don’t need one who spends his days among the digtirati trying to find the next #YOLO.

I wish this screen capture were doctored. But it isn't.
7,712 new enemies.


#4 – Encourage conversations.

An engaged customer is literally the happiest person in the world. Here are examples of posts that are sure to spark conversations:

Thank goodness it’s Friday #TGIF

(This is a secular spin on an old favorite)

Sure is hot today #weather

(Topical AND accurate, especially for members of your audience near the equator)

Which sausage would you rather eat? (include a picture of two delicious sausages, labeled A and B)

(You don’t have to be a sausage brand to talk sausage)


Nothing demonstrates expertise in a given field more than what amounts to word diarrhea.
Nothing demonstrates expertise in a given field more than what essentially amounts to word diarrhea.


#5 – Post content regularly.

This is literally the same thing as #2.

OK, time for real talk. I love marketing because it’s an interesting and exciting mixture of science and artistry. We aren’t persuading people to act today; we’re not even persuading people to act tomorrow. We’re just trying to get them to pay attention for a little bit and notice us so that one day, when our product or service matters, they will remember us.

That’s it.

We’re not trying to subliminally manipulate them nor should we believe our audience takes the short bus to work every day. Everyone in the world wants the same thing: relevant stuff. It could be fun. It could be entertaining. It just needs to cut through the clutter of Branded Nonsense and deliver some value. Nothing is free in this world, especially people’s most valuable commodity: time.

Some real thoughts on social media:

  • Social media is important, but the idea behind a given post or campaign is 100x more so. Screaming at your audience is as worthless as screaming at a crowd of confused Japanese tourists in Times Square.
  • Social media is where people go to seek value. They want to chat with friends. They want to read interesting articles or view silly pictures of cats. They want to stalk ex-girlfriends and spend all night trying to figure out whether they want to ask the girl they really like on a coffee date. They don’t want to converse with companies, ESPECIALLY if they have nothing relevant to say.
  • Just because you can say something, does not mean you should. Saying something just to create noise is a waste of time (and more times than not, budget).
  • Beyond all else, ask yourself: would I share this piece of content with my best friends without being laughed at? If you say yes, ask yourself the same question repeatedly until you’re absolutely sure.

OK, social media ninjas. Here’s hoping you abandon #YOLO in favor of some decent content strategy.



1. Put this on the list of words bound to boost your SEO. Right up there with “engagement” and “social media revolution.”


Apple makes moves in advance of iWatch launch

From Reuters:

Apple poaches another luxury executive as iWatch nears


So what?

One very big problem facing mobile phone makers is that the peripherals they sell often appeal to the fashion sensibilities of geeks. Can Apple reverse this trend by bringing in more luxury industry talent? They’ve already poached former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts.

What to look for:


Viral. Maybe.