Usurping The Agency

If you think the strategy should always be led by the advertising agency, think again, writes Environics' Andrew Berthoff. There's a new agency in town and her name is PR

Many years ago, when I was just starting my career in public relations, I was in a meeting when a client referred to something called ‘The Agency.’

‘Let me check with The Agency,’ she said. As a member of her PR agency, I first wondered why she was talking funny, and then just which agency she was referring to in such a detached manner. After all, I was sitting right in front of her.

Then she said it again. And again. Finally, I realized that by ‘The Agency’ she meant the advertising agency, as if everyone should assume that The Agency can mean only one thing. It was clear that the PR agency was second or third fiddle in her mind. I was a bit offended, but it turned out to be a frequent occurrence with many clients.

However, as public relations has become more sophisticated and effective over the years, there has been less talk about The Agency and more discussion of all the agencies – advertising, public relations, sampling, direct mail, media buying – on equal terms. The role of the advertising agency remains strong, but the stature and importance of the other third-party marketing organizations has markedly increased. Though PR agency professionals still hear references to The Agency today, more often than not the agency is really a marketing collective that works in concert to deliver bigger and better results for the client.

A survey in a recent issue of PRWeek provided proof that marketers are looking beyond placed advertising to public relations as a key developer of strategy. Ten years ago a marketing campaign would begin – and often end – with advertising. Today, 63% of marketing managers cite buzz and word-of-mouth as the most important alternatives to television advertising.

According to the same survey, 81% of corporate marketing professionals ‘believe that PR firms are capable of working on strategic branding.’ Once the sole domain of the advertising agency, branding responsibilities are increasingly assigned to public relations professionals.

Gone are the days of clients organizing meetings between advertising and public relations agencies so the former can instruct the latter about strategies, target markets, and messages. Public relations agencies are more frequently asked to take part in multi-agency meetings at which concepts are tabled and consensus is reached. In fact, because a good public relations agency is nimble and inexpensive, and so tapped-in to current events and the competitive landscape, it is frequently asked to develop core marketing concepts, and to carve an approach that is portable to advertising and all other elements of the marketing mix.

The trend toward making the public relations company the focus agency is a result of several factors, chief among them:

Accountability and credibility – customers, shareholders and employees want the straight goods, and they’d rather hear it from third-party sources. Credibility is key, and effective public relations works with third parties to build confidence.

Flexibility – a public relations program can be developed in hours and adjusted on the fly. Tangible results can also be achieved in hours, not months.

Measurement – a good public relations agency welcomes metrics and offers sophisticated systems to measure the efficacy of the client’s investment.

Message overload – everyone is pressed for time. Decision-makers want clear and credible information and they want it now. Who watches commercials? Who clicks on banners? Nobody willingly puts up with sales babble. People look to credible sources for information to help them with their buying decisions.

Of course, effective advertising still plays an important role on the marketing stage, particularly when it comes to pure brand awareness and consciousness. But the advertising agency is no longer the prima donna. An ensemble cast of co-stars supports the entire marketing production.

These days, anyone who talks about The Agency is not seeing the bigger picture, and probably missing bigger opportunities to do more with less.

Of course, old habits die hard. A few months ago at a meeting with a new client, a marketing manager made reference to The Agency. She had never worked with a good PR firm, and was still thinking in terms of a 10-to-1 budget split of advertising-to-PR. I had to hold my tongue.

But this is PR. I knew I could give her a few months to figure it out.

Andrew Berthoff is an SVP at Environics Communications and can be reached at aberthoff@environicspr.com.