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


Hire the person, not the talent

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I often see people focus so much on the experience or list of achievements on a flashy CV that they fail to think hard enough about the person who hides behind it. And this, I think, is fatal.
There’s a theory floating around on the web that a person is made up of an average of the five people they spend the most time. Although this initially sounds like the kind of vomit-inducing motivational statement found on Pinterest, perhaps there is something in it. For it is true to say that a person’s personality mirrors the people they hang out with, and good and bad habits and traits become exaggerated when surrounded and encouraged by similar behaviour.

This stands true, I think, for businesses as well.

I have seen many a culture affected — both for better or worse — by the introduction of just one person. I am convinced, too, that the addition of just one incompetent person to a pool of good talent dilutes that talent and makes everyone else just that little bit more rubbish.
I would even go so far as to say that just one bad hire may make or break a business. I have twice seen first-hand the disastrous effect that the introduction of one toxic person at a senior level can bring to a business, in both cases leading to the loss of staff, clients and irreversible damage to the bottom line.

It makes sense — clients don’t only choose an agency because of the work they have done. They have chosen it because they like, and trust, and have chemistry with the people whom they have to deal with. And, as much as employees want a good salary and to work on sexy brands, they also don’t want to be bullied or miserable or traumatised every time they sit down at their desks.

As I have said many times, we spend more time with the people whom we sit in an office with every day than our friend, families and lovers. So who wants to be miserable for the majority of their life because of the asshats whom they are forced to work with?

There a more fundamental point to this, though, than simply whether people are nice or not.
Nothing to be done with a bad attitude

Skills may be taught and people may be invested in — but there’s nothing that may be done with someone who has a bad attitude. I would choose an eager and personable junior who’s willing to learn over an obnoxious, aggressive or lazy person with loads of experience any day.
For an industry where most of us have just two real assets — our reputation and the people whom we employ — isn’t it crazy that we so often overlook the value of the second?

Emma 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

How can we sell something if we don't believe in it ourselves?

Work we are passionate about

This articles first appeared in Marklives. 

When chatting to a young entrepreneur the other day, he casually mentioned about how he had never considered using a PR service to launch any of his businesses or products because PR was “expensive and all PRs were liars and spin doctors”.

How sad that our industry is perceived as such, when, out of all of the communications streams, ours is the one that relies the most upon trusted relationships, and the one that can offer the most bang for the buck.

And, yet, it’s not surprising when we look at the evidence.

I can think of many times, back in the day, when I had to harness my growing shame and dread in order to hound a poor journalist to try and get her to write a glowing report on some rubbish product or other we had been paid to spin.

One highlight that springs to mind was a catalogue that featured, wait for it, other catalogues, that I was tasked on getting media coverage for! And then there was that other time I sent a beauty journalist to try out an “amazing new spa”, and she returned, horrified, telling tales of change rooms that smelt of poo; crusty dirty bathrobes; and dodgy, dusty, fake plastic fruit arrangements as décor.

The shame of it all.

No wonder the poor editors at the other end of the phone, hounded by hundreds of breathless, eager young PRs, grow more and more brusque and irritable when taking our calls.
This is not limited to consumer products and PR. Corporate clients take this up a notch, insisting that their dull sustainability measures or photos of big cheques being handed over to grateful impoverished charities are headline news or front-page features. And then there is the opposite, when we desperately spin tales and webs of confusion in order to keep bad news out of the public domain.

What a sad state of affairs, as our reputation as an industry of lying spin-doctors becomes ever more entrenched.

So it’s been a relief to start my own business and make a few rules of my own. Joining the first hard-and-fast rule (that I don’t work with or for horrible people or people who have bad attitudes), is the second, but equally important one — that I don’t work with any brands or businesses that I don’t fully believe in or like.

For how can I market something if I don’t believe it is the best thing since screw-top wine bottles were invented? And how can I sleep at night if I am responsible for spinning a web of deceit about a business that is doing something that I have fundamental moral issue with?
It doesn’t stop with choosing the right people or brands to work with, though. There are times when we need to take a step back and question whether what we are doing or selling is really relevant.

I’ve been working on a content strategy with a corporate recently, where we were looking at and reviewing all of its streams of communications — from its B2B newsletters to consumer-facing magazines and social media streams. It was wondering why its “levels of engagement” were low, when it spent so much time and money telling all sorts of fascinating stories about the business in prettily designed pages.

So it took some guts for it to realise, and address, that it had been playing to egos internally, allowing every bit of work or achievement (from new internet cables to energy-efficient light bulbs, I kid you not) take pride of place in every piece of external communication.

It was only when it could take a step back and ask what people wanted to HEAR, rather than what it wanted to SAY, that thing suddenly became exciting.

So, as a PR consultant, the learning is clear. Work with people and brands that you love, and that value you as a consultant rather than a service provider. You need to believe in what they are all about, and yet be able to step back and question when something feels wrong.

It is only then that we can begin to address this issue we have of being “lying spin doctors”.

 Emma 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

A strong reputation isn't built through PR

Markllives PR

This article originally appeared on Marklives.

There has been many a client which has asked how it could build its profile and reputation, asking me to “PR” it and make it a loved household name. And it would be easy enough to sell a PR approach that promised a bunch of press releases in return for instant fame and adoration.

But those brands that are loved and revered are not those which have sent out a million statements about how great they are or what they have achieved.

They are the ones that have quietly gone about doing their job really well, and growing the reputation and column inches as a result.

And this is important, not only for the CEO’s ego, but also for the bean counters behind the scenes, because it has been proven time and again that those companies that have a good reputation benefit in a myriad of ways — from attracting (and more importantly) retaining the best talent through to a strong bottom line.

Let’s look at a South African success story for some insights. And what better than South African Breweries (SAB), which has grown from being a small local brewer to a world leader?
Obviously, there’ve been a number of business decisions made along the way that made it the force to be reckoned with that it is today — from water-tight and extensive distribution channels to strong and innovative brand development and marketing.

But at the heart of this is the aim to be a company that has an authenticity at the core, whether it be using its flagship brand Castle to join the fight against rhino poaching or building ways into the management and building of its breweries that have an understanding of sustainable growth at its core.

It would have been easy to slap a “Responsible Drinking” logo on every drink and tick the box of “good marketing”. But, instead, funds are channelled into carefully researched, on-the-ground projects — from educating taverners on responsible trading to the development and funding of entrepreneurs and startups.

The resulting effect is a place in which employees and consumers have a sense of pride and ownership, and that loyalty pays off multiple times over when the end of the year’s financial results comes in.

The learnings for us, as communicators, are many.

First, I would say that it doesn’t matter how good a PR team you have on board if the core of your offering is not strong and authentic; it will never gain traction. We all know that famous saying about the futility of polishing things that rhyme with words.

Secondly, there needs to be an inherent understanding — in the boardroom — that there’s a value in a strong reputation that cannot be measured. And that the PR or marketing team is not the custodian of this — it lies instead with the whole management team, who needs to let the philosophy and values run through everything that is done.

And, lastly, it is the understanding that the reputation of a brand or business is not made through press releases and holding statements in times of crises. It is made up of all of those little moments and encounters that people have with it — from what they read in a newspaper or see on social media down to their impression when they arrive in your reception or how they are greeted by your security guard.

Emma 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