Advertising and the art of unconstrained thinking

Bravia_paintI’ve been thinking about Arun Sudhaman‘s article in PR Week – following his time at the Cannes Lions – and the thought that it is still advertising agencies that come up with the really big ideas rather than PR agencies. I’m sure the article will cause some controversy and hand wringing from the PR community…when it contains quotes such as: “PR agencies have historically been subordinate…” it’s somehow inevitable.

But I think it’s largely accurate.

I think that advertising people have an advantage in that they’re already in the habit of thinkiing without the constraints of real world considerations. Their creative process starts without any concerns over “how?” just (to use a phrase from an advertisement) “what if?”

PR, on the other hand, has always needed to quickly work out the practicalities of creative execution…and doing so often kills the big idea before it’s even got near the client (who often kills it anyway if it gets that far). The PR industry is out of the habit of unconstrained thinking.

As if to prove the point as I was rolling this though around my head earlier, the two Steves at Speed CommunicationsWadds and Earl – simultaneously tweeted about a new TV ad from The Economist (it had obviously done the rounds at Speed…The Economist is a client of theirs).

Now, imagine if that same idea had been generated by a PR team…”Right, what we’re going to do is have a fella walking across tightropes over a European city…stepping from one to another, leaping from here to there…”

Lovely. But how soon before PR practicalities kick in? “Which city do we use? How do we get permission? Will it generate media coverage? What if he falls off..?” The idea whithers on the vine.

The ad guys, of course, know that they can use a clever bit of green screen and CGI and Bob’s your uncle. Nice big idea and we all get a week’s jolly in Berlin to boot.

In Sudhaman’s PR Week article, Jim Hawker of Threepipe is quoted: “We are still some way down the pecking order, even though we are always coming up with fantastic creative ideas. It’s about being heard in the right places.”

Spot on. Reading between the lines (possibly incorrectly) Hawker’s saying that the client PR contacts we deal with on a daily basis aren’t always the ones who are going to see the potential and value in a big idea, let alone have the budget to execute. Ad agencies, on the other hand, generally have a line straight into the senior marketing decision-makers.

Another interesting quote comes from Tony Effik of Publicis Modem: “It’s not that PR agencies have not come up with great campaigns, it’s that they were not integrated with paid media. Adding paid media gives a PR campaign more legs. Resources are also an issue – PR agencies tend not to hire strategic people.”

Two points here: PR agencies needing to think beyond pure editorial results and ‘free’ media (YouTube, blogs, Twitter) and come up with ideas that can be driven through paid media; and hiring the right people.

To the second point, one of my continual frustrations with the PR industry is that we have almost entirely failed to attach value to the creative; that we give away the big idea – or use it as a sales tool – and seem happy to simply to get paid for execution. And when you’re giving something away, where’s the motivation to invest in the resources to create it? If you do, loss leaders become more loss and less leader. But it’s something that’s so ingrained in our industry that it will be almost impossible to change. I mean, imagine turning up at a pitch and telling the client that you’ve had a brilliant creative idea but it’ll cost them £50k to hear it… “Next!”

The first point, of course, relates to the blurring of the lines between disciplines, which is where both the risk and opportunity lies. But if PR is going to take advantage, we need to throw off the chains that constrain our thinking, and fast. Personally, I don’t believe that the advertising industry has more creative people than PR, it’s just that they’re more motivated to be creative.

10 thoughts on “Advertising and the art of unconstrained thinking

  1. David Brain says:

    My objection was more to the quote from the Publicis guy who makes the usual ad industry mistake of assuming that unless you are titled Strategic Planner that you are not strategic. I have spent two years in ad agency as a …… strategic planner . . . . and so have seen both sides of the fence and believe me there are many, many areas in which the average PR frms dispenses far more strategic advice than an ad agency.

    Remember also that strategic planning in most ad agencies is basically a sales force for the traditional bought media product. Admittedly they are being dragged into the new era now, but reluctantly. Strategic planners and strategic thinking in ad agencies is nearly always conditioned by the channel they exist in and the product they have to sell. PR people tend to be much more channel neutral and solution oriented. Big Ideas from an ad agency invariably involve BIG Media buys….there are exceptions of course like the Best job in the world campaign that seems to have sparked this industry angst.

  2. Mark says:

    I totally agree on the strategic planning argument. I actually think that the ability to add strategic value pervades more broadly and deeply in PR agencies than it does in advertising agency, and is also more often based on a better understanding of an industry sector.

    It’s difficult to achieve, of course, but big ideas should be independent of channel at their conception; whether executed through paid media, editorial, digital, whatever…the big idea should stand and be valued. Big ideas in PR agencies are also driven by the service being sold which, sadly, often means too great a focus on media coverage.

  3. Arun Sudhaman says:

    Interesting responses. I think, the second part of the article, which hasn’t appeared online yet is also worth pondering: it looks at how ad agencies are starting to integrate PR at the beginning of the process. The upshot, of course, is whether PR agencies can do the same thing given the constraints you have outlined above.

    As for the strategic planning debate, I’ve covered both sectors for a number of years and I agree that PR people can be very strategic. But few PR agencies have the resources for a dedicated planning department or always work for clients that are willing to spend on serious research to uncover insights. A strategic PR person will also be expected to handle client servicing, creative, execution…Surely these factors have some effect when agencies are being asked to come up with big ideas?

  4. Mark says:

    I think it goes back to being heard by the right people. PR rarely has a direct line into the senior marketing owner, and research which informs strategic planning should be driven at the highest level – after all, the insights should inform all marketing disciplines. So, even if a PR manager had the resources/budget to undertake research, they’ll probably see it as ‘something that marketing does…’

    But I do think there’s a balance to be struck. Yes, a PR person needs to demonstrate a broader set of skills than just planning, but they’re also immersed more deeply in the client’s business and sector and therefore have the ability to add more strategic value. A dedicated planning department might be doing shampoo one day and enterprise software the next.

    But then they might have all the research they need to do that effectively.


  5. Ken Hong says:

    I agree with Tony Effik’s point about paid media but in the end, the decisions made by PR are usually limited due to budget constraints. Until clients (and some in the PR industry) start to think of PR as a tool for reputation management and less about clips and ad value, we will forever be the poor sibling.

    I also agree with David that Tony is clueless about how important a role strategy plays in a PR agency. Everyone in public relations is expected to be strategic, not just those with the right titles.

  6. Nick Bishop says:

    Tony Effik is absolutely, completely right. Lack of ambition and confidence are factors, but not understanding how to work with paid-for media is far more limiting.

    But having an arm wrestle with creative and media agencies may be just plain futile. Clients are slowly recognising that public relations’ part in campaigns – the bit which includes persuasion and conversation – is now as important, and more exciting, than the paid-for elements.

    Moving beyond editorial requires news skills: Rubber Republic, Go Viral, Unruly Media all look like very good acquisitions for an ambitious PR agency.

  7. Tony Effik says:

    I think my point in PR Week has been slightly misinterpreted, but I’m enjoying the debate it has ignited. I have met many exceptionally strategic people in PR, and know of many more. But for me, PR’s great strength of creating stories that earn attention across front pages has been limited by not having strategy departments dedicated to integrating that storytelling into the complex mix of channels now available.

    Most advertising agencies are moving into the PR space faster than PR agencies are moving into the advertising space. My view is that having dedicated strategists that join up that story in both paid and earned media is the main reason why.

  8. Mark says:

    PR Week? Misinterpretation? Are you sure Tony..?

    I think you’re largely right though. PR has been obsessed – still is, to be honest – with editorial coverage. Public relations became press relations.

    Most clients still turn up at the door of PR agencies wanting coverage. They’ve yet to be convinced that there’s an opportunity to take those same stories (the same ones that are of interest to editors and journalists) and present them direct to the audience through different channels. So while clients demand coverage and will pay for it, this is what many agencies focus on delivering. It’s chicken and egg.

    The irony is that those strategies and stories that are created for editors would actually often be incredibly effective through myriad other channels. There’s no reason why the big PR idea can’t be the big marketing idea. But maybe, again, it comes back to being heard by the right people.

  9. Matt says:

    Coming to this far too late, of course, but I think the problem PR has is twofold. Firstly, as you have all agreed, agencies rarely report into the right people and, frankly, we are often kept at arm’s length from senior management by complete muppets who are hell-bent on protecting their own pathetic, tactical fiefdoms.

    But the second point is self-inflicted (though perhaps related), and that is that despite the brilliant thinkers and the undoubted talent, we do not package our strategic / creative product at all well. An ‘advert’ is a product; what is our equivalent? I think the opportunity is in the area of brand, which OUGHT to be transitioning rapidly towards dialogue, conversation, listening, authenticity and all sorts of things squarely in our field of vision. But as an industry we seem to lack the confidence to grab this opportunity by the horns.

    I have recently had the pleasure of doing an in-house gig and managing agency pitches. Almost all of them fielded very senior people who threw their time in for free. As a potential client, I would have rather paid, and understood what I’d get for my money.

  10. […] in some part relates to PR being heard by the wrong people in client companies, but I could bang on about that all […]

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