Why clever PR agencies are stealing ATL biz

PR business opinion piece

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Recently, we PR peeps were put firmly in our place when he-who-knows-all-things, Sir Martin Sorrell, informed us sternly that PR agencies who think they can take on advertising agencies (unless being generously allowed in as part of an integrated pitch) were “living in la-la land”.

Phew! Glad to hear that’s finally been sorted! We can go back to our little corners and continue scrabbling around, hoping that a few scraps get thrown our way when those higher up the food chain get tired of then.

Although — dare I say it — could he-who-is-never-wrong be mistaken?

I would point him to look at wider trends, where business and budgets that previously would have been allocated to the big ATL players are being passed on to PR agencies (plus other niche offerings, such as digital or social media hotshops). And I know from personal experience where just that has happened; within my own business, we have been the lucky recipients of that a couple of times in the last few months.

I concede, at this stage, that it would be rare to find any pure-PR agency being the lead agency on a big piece of business (although there are cases). But I would warn the traditional agencies to show caution, because clever PR agencies that know what they are doing are starting to snap up their business. And here’s why:

1. PR people are also “creatives”

For many years, the ad agencies snapped up the most-promising creative minds by offering a sexier option. Visions of Mad Men-esque all-night benders and outrageous antics tempted the craziest dreamers into a promised land of rule-breaking and creative nirvana.

But we only need to look globally to see how this has shifted. In the US and UK especially, some of the top creative talent and brightest strategists are starting to choose PR over advertising, as they realise that it offers credible choices for canny communicators. We only need to look at how the lobbying industry there offers big bucks for smart and creative thinkers.

Even outside that, I would argue that PR people are inherently “creatives”, though’ we have to be, because we need our ideas and stories to be interesting enough for a journalist to run or for someone to share. We cannot just buy media space and plonk them out there.

Good PR people have to be on the pulse of popular culture, at the forefront of trends and damn familiar with what is news — we need to be in order to make stories that are relevant, and we need to be able to identify and mitigate threats to our clients’ business long before anyone else does.

Clients are beginning to realise all of this, too, and are approaching us for creative leadership, not just to “PR” the ad idea at the end.

2. We have business models that are tighter and more nimble

Traditional old ad agencies are struggling to deal with the kind of turn around and budgets that clients and consumers demand. And they always will until they fundamentally change the very way their business models and systems have been built.

PR agencies, however, have always been quicker and more nimble. When a crisis is breaking, we don’t have the luxury of a six-month turn around that involves millions of people and hundreds of creative presentations and reverts. We have learned to think quickly, respond even faster, and work with clients in a way that allows feedback, reverts and approvals to be virtually instant.

Good PR people are not just PR people, either. Or “creatives” (see point one above). We are account managers, strategists, writers, art directors, social media managers and general schmoozers all-in-one. The industry favours multitaskers and polymaths over people who stick to a job description.

It means we can be even faster and more adaptable. We don’t need to wait for account management to brief traffic to write a job bag to brief a writer for a copy change for a creative director to review. We just do it, in the fraction of the time, and for a fraction of the client’s budget.

3. Bought media doesn’t make the same kind of sense it used to

I challenge you to find a marketing manager anywhere that doesn’t wince at the eye-watering amounts of cold hard cash that are needed to run a good old-fashioned media campaign. That’s not just because of the cost, but because of the acknowledgement of how much of it is wasted.

Anyone with half a brain can work out how much traditional advertising is NOT being seen and NOT being noticed, just as a result of ad-blockers, skipping YouTube prerolls, and PVR-type functionality, not to mention the rest. Clever marketers know that clever PR really can be effective — because, if it’s done well, it creates the kind of content that people want to read or see, not skip through.

As the old saying goes, “Advertisers make things. PRs make news.”

I reckon Sir Sorrell doesn’t have to worry too much immediately. His big ’ol advertising agencies will still make him a couple of squillion bucks this year. But he shouldn’t underestimate us feisty ’lil PR poppies. We may show him a thing or two if he doesn’t keep an eye on us.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.