The great game

by Robin Grant in News Google+

"What happens to Online PR?" debate by Phil Sheard
Photo: Phil Sheard

Last Tuesday NMK ran a debate entitled “What Happens to Online PR” – it was packed full of the great and good of ‘Online PR’ and, aside from the debate, it was a great to have a chance to catch-up with everyone.

The evening has already been covered in depth by Roger Warner, Jed Hallam, Jo-Rosie Haffenden, Drew Benvie, Sarah Beavis, Lloyd Gofton and the organiser Ian Delaney, but the point I made in my intervention on the night seems to have been lost.

Much to my delight, the PR industry seems to be taking a very myopic view of the current state of play (as evidenced by PR Week’s coverage of the event). It fails to realise that there is a great game afoot, one that involves all of the advertising and marketing industry, that will be merciless on those that fail to adapt.

Above the line, digital, PR, direct marketing and even media agencies are converging towards the same place, and due to the rise of digital, the battle has been raging for a few years now. Up until recently, the PR industry has been relatively immune from its effects. This will not continue. Agencies of all colours are realising what the future will bring, and are making plans to adapt.

However, just as over the last ten years digital agencies stole a march on above the line agencies by building bigger, better and more motivated specialist teams, thereby innovating faster and developing a critical mass of best practise that accelerated the gap between them and their offline competitors, so conversation agencies will do the same to PR agencies (and, I have to say, to the digital and other agencies also trying to catch-up).

To use ourselves as an example, who else has a team of twelve entirely focused on innovative, creative and effective social media marketing and communications? Each day and each new hire widens the gap between us and those in pursuit.

To quote from Roger Warner’s write-up of the evening:

The people who will write the book are those who make the first convincing moves and are happy to invest and invent. We’ll be delivering best practises in beta mode whilst Big PR is watching on the sidelines.

Update: PR Week finally wakes up:

PR agencies are facing up to a growing threat from the adv­ertising sector after the car giant this week picked MindShare to handle […] digital PR and social media strategy.

‘The advertising industry is focusing its guns on PR bud­get, so our industry is def-in­itely at a crossroads,’ said Katy Howell, MD at Immediate Future. ‘We must step up, educate our clients and widen our reach to include marketing and digital departments.

‘If we do not, there is every likelihood that the PR industry will not exist in five years. We will become a commodity within the bigger, more powerful, media and advertising organisations.’

Update 2: Brian Solis has some further thoughts:

By now, many organizations realize that the success of their brands will be determined online. Yet other than this almost universal consensus, little else about digital has been decided. Its scope is constantly expanding and its growth potential has every marketing discipline jumping to adopt some part of digital as its own turf. “There is all kinds of competition popping up [for digital] and it’s putting a squeeze on communications professionals,” says Brian Solis, founder and president of FutureWorks, a digital PR agency. PR, ad, and direct marketing agencies are all looking to carve a niche in digital as their conventional channels become increasingly irrelevant. With traditional ad revenues decreasing in value and news outlets shuttering, the most viable avenue for future revenue is digital. But the race to capitalize on digital has pitted many of these agencies against each other, especially as the boundaries between marketing, advertising, and PR blur online.

Update 3: Campaign, the advertising industry’s bible, chimes in:

Digital advertising and social media are quickly converging and, while PR is reaping the rewards inside this new space, how long will it be before others muscle in? Already, Beattie McGuinness Bungay, DDB and VCCP are among UK agencies fine-tuning PR and social media offerings and others will quickly follow.

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  • Stephen Waddington

    All good points and all very well made, if provocative – but I’m guessing that’s deliberate.

    We’re not working in isolation. Speed is part of Loewy (Steve Earl and I sold our business into the group in 2006) and we’re working across the business with Branded, Radius, Seymour Powell and The Team.

    I’m getting bored by this debate now. As Private Eye would say – that’s enough #prdebate – Ed. Let's get on with inventing the future eh?

  • Roger (C&M Online PR)

    Hey Robin

    Spot on.

    As I mentioned in my post (the one you link to), specialisation and all the new learning that comes from it will build a gap between agencies that are serious about this stuff (ie, you and I) and all the others. In other words, the spoils will go to those who take the risk to build something new in the middle of a recession.

    I've been thinking about all of this a lot since the debate. 'Great Game' is a good label for what's going on right now… My gut feeling is that not having a past (or a standard way of doing things) to either build upon or shake off is a real positive for specialist firms and their clients. I won't be selling trad PR services or microsite 'build' services anytime soon…. I'll just be focusing on delivering the stuff which delivers most value at the best possible price.

    (Aside: loved yourpost on MicroSites the other week. The sooner we stop spending money building this crap for brands the better (ie, 'doing a vanity Facebook') …the message has to be 'don't build your own, just go join the best that already exist.')

    Call it a 'Conversation Agency,' or 'Online PR Agency,' or whatever, I see a service model not built on 'key messages', web development (code) or branding…. but on helping companies to find, participate in and leverage communities and conversations to their benefit. That to me is a rather radical promise: the skill sets that are required are very different to those of a traditional agency (PR or digital). They may *feel* like PR or digital skills, but in fact they're very different….

    Building followings, generating measurable influence, etc, etc…. none of this involves a press release or writing a single line of code. It's an intelligence-based offering. And in a year's time I think we'll be trading on some very smart methods and processes, all of which are based on Analytics and managing socially-built (and designed) content.

    So, unlike Stephen, I'm not bored by the debate…. Far from it: I'm developing a business out of it. Something that's very, very different from what we have today…. And that's tremendously exciting for me, my staff and my clients.

    Keep up the good work my man, and keep rattling cages. Hope to see you soon.



  • katie moffat

    I enjoyed the NMK evening, it was fun although, to be honest, in the end I felt it was kind of a bit of a non-debate – all those likeminded digital folk just agreed with each other and said the same thing but from different angles. Anyway, to the question, 'have PR folk had it and should they hang up and give in to the inevitable?'

    No, tt won't be a case of PR will die and conversation agencies will triumph, it will be as it always has been – smart, clued up, interested and interesting people will get on and do it. Whether they come from a PR background (and still work in PR) or whether they are a dedicated social media or 'conversation' agency, I don't think it matters. I do think that a fair few traditional PR agencies and individuals struggle with the online world just because they're put off by the preception that it's impenetrable tech stuff but that's not all and there are some fantastic PR folk out there. Drew and Wadds and Ste Davies are doing exactly the same job as people like Tom and Will, content & motion and you guys. It just has a different label.

    The fittest will survive, what they're called won't matter.

  • michelle goodall

    Ok Robin, I wasn't going to be hooked into this one, but seeing that Stephen, Roger and Katie have nibbled the fat twitter maggot…..

    I missed the debate but watched it unfold, albeit slowly on twitter. The same old story seems has been playing out for the past 18 months at least, except now many more PR agencies are doing some really good stuff in this area and others are recognising the need for senior staff to skill up, get rid of the “let's get our digital expert in” shackles and get their hands dirty as the watering hole of traditional media gets smaller and the penny drops that social media is so far away from being niche.

    I completely agree with Katie on this. What you call your agency and how you position it is becoming less relevant to clients and their FDs.

    Conversation, PR, word of mouth, social media optimisation call it what you wish….the agency landscape will look completely different in 5 years time and the winners will be those who demonstrate genuine value to their clients through creativity, flexibility and simple metrics linked to ROI.

  • Ian Delaney

    For the last 100 years, PR has not been recognised as central to a brand's strategy. The media buyer/planners have effectively controlled the marketing budget. The agency that has the largest slice of cash controls all the others to a large extent. That's normally advertising and this is how the conversation goes:

    A: “Yeah – and put in 20% for some PR”; B: “Why?”; A: “Yeah – you've got to do that to get some press and that”; B: “Mmmm – maybe 15% ?”; A: “Yeah: OK”.

    We enter the social media 'age' (or whatever it is) and PR firms have been given a golden opportunity to reinvent themselves as the conversation specialists. The people on top of what people are talking about.To my mind, far too few agencies are alive to that. They ought to be trouncing digital teams because their specialisation is relationships. Yet they are not.

    I could not expect the event to do much more than get people really talking and worrying and thinking. Hopefully, thanks to input like yours, Robin, that's happening.

  • Jonathan Hopkins

    I'm with Wadds . . . a little bit bored by the #PRdebate.

    I reckon the proof is in the pudding, actions speak louder than words and the early bird catches the worm . . . etc

  • dannywhatmough

    I'm afraid I disagree with Stephen and Jonathan, I think this debate is great, relevant and has really been missing at an 'industry' level (whatever that means) for some time, even if it has been very active internally. Broader perspectives are always useful.

    I do agree with Katie and Michelle though, the definitions we use are irrelevant (indeed that is the main thrust of my post on the subject –… ).

    I also think Ian makes a valid point. Trad PR is in many ways ideally placed to handle the new wave of marketing/PR/conversation/social media (whatever you want to call it).

    The gauntlet has been thrown – many of us (call us whatever you want) are eager and willing to rise to the challenge.

  • Jonathan Hopkins

    @ Danny – I guess my point (done in a slightly tongue-in-not-so-serious-cheek way, granted) was that we should stop debating it, talking about it and agreeing on different bits in unison. . . and just focus on DOING it.

  • dannywhatmough

    @ Jonathan – furious agreement it is then :)

  • Jonathan Hopkins

    @ Danny Agreed. Grrrrrrrr!

  • Ged Carroll

    This is all a bit tedious, I remember a similar debate when PA Consulting used to do PR for Compaq. PR always has had to duke things out with other disciplines and agencies. Often it hasn't done it particularly well and as Robin alludes to there is a marketing singularity coming.

    Ultimately the people who will win will be the people most trusted by the client. Will PR die, I doubt it, will PR agencies die – some undoubtedly will (most likely a slow lingering death due to the low barriers to entry), the smartest have already started evolving.

  • michelle goodall

    Here here Ged!

    OK, so we are broadly in agreement?

    …some are bored with the debate..others are using it to demonstrate that they get it and should be invited to the clients' table (PRs, SEMs, specialists, 'conversation agencies' etc) ….slow lingering deaths to those who fail to adapt….marketing Darwinism in action….survival of the smartest/best at demonstrating what good looks like….. shut up and get on and do it….

    Right ho… I'm going to sign off from this and other debates like this and focus my time and energy on helping others to plan it, do it, measure it, refine it…..

  • andismit

    15pc for PR? More like 5pc – certainly if you are looking at technology firms – IDC has been tracking marketing spend in the tech biz for years, and PR never seems to break out of its 5pc share of marketing budget. Digital on the other hand has gone from zero to 12pc and continues to grow.

    The thing that struck me most about the NMK debate was the almost total absence of client side representatives. Debate is a good thing – however, at the moment, it is a debate that doesn't seem to include probably the most important segment – the clients.

  • andismit

    15pc for PR? More like 5pc – certainly if you are looking at technology firms – IDC has been tracking marketing spend in the tech biz for years, and PR never seems to break out of its 5pc share of marketing budget. Digital on the other hand has gone from zero to 12pc and continues to grow.

    The thing that struck me most about the NMK debate was the almost total absence of client side representatives. Debate is a good thing – however, at the moment, it is a debate that doesn't seem to include probably the most important segment – the clients.

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