It may be stating the bleeding obvious, but we all know the media is changing rapidly – every few months, something comes along that fractures the old order more and more. The latest is the iPad, one more thing in a long line of technological advances that are making it easier for brand and public to connect without the need of the old certainties.
So what will shape the future? And who will shape it? The screaming headline in PR Week warning of ad agencies encroaching on PR territory misses the point a little, I feel. A good PR agency is stronger than people think.
“Ad agencies have always been a threat,” a friend in PR admitted the other day. “WPP et al have been buying PR agencies for decades. What matters is contacts, culture, energy, creativity, bullshit and bollocks. And, of course, your last piece of coverage. And that means scum-sucking, news-junky, urban cosmopolite ambidextrous grasshoppers like us.”
He’s right. Ad agencies have always been at the centre – but now the centre cannot hold, and they are looking for new ways to play the game. If ad agencies are attempting to encroach on PR’s turf, it says more about the dire straits that the advertising agencies are in than it does about PR’s fragility.
Whenever I’ve been asked to get involved in a campaign led by an ad agency, it has become abundantly clear that they do not really understand the power of stories or true public engagement.
Ad agencies never really catch the public conversation – they’re too busy letting their account men get the client dependant on them to understand the relationship PR has with media, client and public. In PR, we listen, we tell hard truths when they’re necessary, we break bad news gently. Ad agencies say what the client wants to hear and rarely challenge the client unless they’re fishing for a bigger budget for a TV campaign.
But there are fewer and fewer big budgets as the traditional homes of the advert fracture and disperse like tear-gassed teenagers. Consequently there fewer and fewer places where the ad agencies can force their clients’ agenda on the public in return for the sort of remuneration they have been used to getting.
Ad agencies have always been about control and control does not allow for listening. They do not get that great advertising does not automatically translate into great PR.
This is why they will fail to encroach on PR territory if we stand firm and use our knowledge of the ebb and flow of the news agenda carefully and well, if we remain honest and listen to the client, if we refuse to let desperate ad agencies change our agendas to suit their failing ones.
The ad agencies are dinosaurs, desperately trying to make sense of a rapidly evolving media world. PR agencies – at least the smarter, better ones – have been making a good fist of the required gradual development and evolution over the last seven or eight. Consequently, these PR agencies are the ones who can see, just a little more clearly than most, the shape of things to come.