Agency A-List – Citizen Relations doubles down on strategic insight

The PR firm is driving conversation through their strategic approach.

The “#RedHatSelfie” campaign for Emirates airline generated more than 1.4 million impressions, covered by the likes of Canadian Living, Elle and The Kit.

Effective public relations today isn’t just about getting a branded message in front of the right media in a creative way, says Nick Cowling, president, Citizen Relations.

It’s more than getting influencers to write a post, and more than just creative press kits (though, those are still a big component). And while PR agencies and ad agencies once argued over who owned social media, today it’s more than just who controls the message – it’s about who leads the conversation, who will lead in getting consumers to talk and engage with the brand.

“Effective campaigns today – versus the bought ones of the past – are really about how are we driving and influencing the conversations,” he says.

So what does that mean for Citizen? In particular the shop has focused on its strategic planning skills, delving deep into consumer insights that can incite true conversation. Their strategic process is creating platforms that not only produce effective PR and media relations, but also compelling integrated creative and challenges traditional media planning and buying norms.

Cowling points to a recent Smartfood campaign for PepsiCo. While pitching for the business, the shop was tasked with finding a way to reach late-millennial moms, and make the popcorn treat her snack of choice, understanding her free time was infrequent and hard to come by.

“We’re not talking about how are we going to get impressions anymore. It’s all about who are we going to impress.”

Cowling says the team wanted to find a way to differentiate the brand and drive the conversation, delving a bit deeper into who mom is. They found since her free time was so difficult to plan, it can be hard for moms to ensure their favourite treats are even on hand – so many hide their preferred snacks so that they know it won’t get eaten.

The hypothesis tested well and the brand teams loved the approach, so much so that it took the PR platform and integrated it in the TV spot, to emphasize this new point, he says.

He points to another recent campaign, for Molson Canadian. The brand, with its creative shop Rethink, set up a rooftop hockey rink in downtown Toronto, tasking Citizen with spreading the word and building brand affinity.

FROM LEFT: The PC Holiday Lounge pop up, which peppered guests with delicious President’s Choice treats ahead of the holiday, drew in more than 8,000 people over a mere six weeks; The rejigged Smart Food’s campaign garnered more than 21 million impressions on social and traditional media channels, including more than 1.2 million views of the video online.

While the rink was only supposed to be up for a predefined time period for its “#Anythingforhockey” contest winners, the buzz and hype around the rink activation was so high that Molson and its agency partners aligned to extend the stay. The extended activation ended just as the NBA All-Star weekend began here in Toronto, presenting a challenge that turned into an opportunity. That star power (some of whom were invited to come for a skate) helped continue to drive chatter around the rink online.

Access to the rooftop rink was restricted, giving this year’s execution the same feel of exclusivity as the initial 2014 mountain-top hockey campaign, though being in the city’s core allowed more people to participate and provide endorsement (versus having to be flown in via helicopter).

The agency measured impressions, tone and sentiment around online conversations, as well as trial and acquisition of the product. It found that metrics, such as anticipation and trust, doubled, while fear was also up – the fear of missing out. The conversations happening online shaped the way people perceived the rink, and tapped into the irrationally-obsessed hockey fans who, like Molson Canadian, would do anything for hockey.

FROM LEFT: Molson’s rooftop skating drew some star power, bringing the “Anything For Hockey” campaign to new heights; “EFC Benedicts,” for the Egg Farmers of Canada, was a stop-motion series that communicated the benefit of eggs in an unexpected way.

“I think 90% of brands are starting to say ‘we don’t want to stick with a traditional siloed briefing process,’” Cowling says. “It’s looking for whatever agency comes up with the best idea.”

As such, Citizen has been beefing its capabilities outside of traditional PR, such as looking for staffers with integrated agency experience, digital and strategic planning backgrounds. It’s also been more heavily taking advantage of its Vision 7 partner agencies, such as Cossette, Jungle Media, and Camp Jefferson, making sure the best talent – whatever the agency background – is brought onto the project.

In particular, he says the agency has been making even more hires on the measurement and tracking side. “Our analytics team is blowing up.” Right now, he says it’s exploring predictive measurement tools – a proprietary system able to determine what conversation topics will lead to business outcomes, and where these conversations are happening. It’s still very early days, he emphasizes, and there’s no guarantee the shop will ever perfect this type of technology, but it’s indicative of how much more the agency wants to put measurement first.

“Times are changing. We’re not talking about how are we going to get impressions anymore,” Cowling says. “It’s all about who are we going to impress.”

The Agency A List stories originally ran in the June Cannes issue.