From press release-station to lead agency

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On media rules-of-thumb in need of an overhaul

Last week my eye was caught by an article on AdAge entitled PR agencies invade adland. The gist: that hot on the heels of in-house agencies, consultancies, and experiential and data marketing specialists, PR agencies are now the new rivals of ad agencies. And those PR agencies are increasingly winning pitches against ad agencies.

According to the article, this is due to the rise of social media and viral content, and the growing customer demand for more integrated marketing solutions. PR agencies know the game of creating (and not buying) attention and how to work with influencers; and in recent years are no longer judged solely by the number of media impressions, but (for the reasons above) increasingly getting the lead on both creation and social, digital and paid media.

This is something I recognize: we, too, are sometimes up against ad agencies in pitches; and this whole area has been a topic of discussion at Cannes for a few years now. I also understand this development: it actually makes a lot of sense. But in my opinion, the shift isn’t happening because PR agencies “also want to be creative” or “want to broaden their business models", as the article suggests. I believe, it's mainly because the role of PR has shifted from (to put it bluntly) a press release office to a highly effective way of approaching marketing. Because the starting point for PR agencies is stories that people will talk about spontaneously, and which as a result break through all the barriers.

After all, the consumer’s consumption of media has evolved. The current media fragmentation, and the option to block or quickly click away from advertising, makes most advertising ineffective. It has simply become far more difficult to guarantee reaching large groups of people.

Oil slick

In order to reach those large groups, you need an approach that ensures the optimal integration of all channels, where content is so relevant (entertaining, informative, funny, etc.) that it spreads like an oil slick because people voluntarily share it, talk about it and seek it out, whether or not it’s backed up a paid media budget. It’s also important that brands base their strategy on both social and media insights, another area where PR agencies in particular feel at home.

Basically, in this ‘earned media way-of-thinking’, PR people often make different choices: reputation-oriented choices that make marketing more relevant, more real, and therefore more credible. Enabling brands to reach the hearts of consumers, so they can communicate far more effectively and far smarter. Or as Edelman US CEO, Russell Dubner, puts it in the article when discussing this vision, "We look at earned media as a mindset, not a set of tactics".

Today, more and more marketeers - and a number of advertising agencies, too - are discovering that this earned thinking is highly effective. In particular, if you’re a brand dealing with competitors with much larger media budgets or you want to change brand perception, working with influence and innovation (typical earned elements) can be very useful.

What’s more, earned media can, contrary to popular belief, deliver a significant boost to your sales. There are various studies that show a direct correlation, with a positive coefficient of 0.91%, between earned media (e-word of mouth) and sales. While other studies show the positive impact on the effectiveness of a campaign of using publicity in combination with paid advertising.

New rules-of-thumb

If marketeers really want this, and really want to do it well (read: communicate far smarter and more effectively), a number of media rules-of-thumb will need to be overhauled. As I just pointed out, this approach requires a different way of looking at things and making different choices. PR-driven campaigns are for a marketeer often innovative campaigns, as they have to work with a new approach to communications. Think Fearless Girl or IKEA ThisAbles, both of which in their own way became well-known with little or no media buying.

Here are a few rules-of-thumb:

1. Rethink the 80/20 rule, whereby 80% of the marketing budget goes to media. With a good earned-first strategy, you won’t need all that budget for media procurement, so suddenly there’s much more money freed up for the campaign itself - relatively speaking, that is. For example, traditionally the press release often came at the end when there was hardly any budget left (of the 20%). Whereas nowadays it’s often the launch, it provides direction. And with that extra budget you can do so much more to attract attention. Such as digital innovations, videos, interactive installations and activations to name but a few possibilities. Having the budget to implement this properly is vital. But compared to what you normally pay for paid media, it’s a pittance when you look at the media attention it delivers.

2. Only invest in paid media when it takes off organically (following a small start-up budget). In other words, opt for a content approach that works organically; and then make it big, boost it, stir things up.

3. Shift the media focus from ‘volume and frequency’ to ‘impact’. Consider in particular how you’re going to get through the filters. Publicity has no trouble with ad blockers. Basically, when you make an impact, you tend to get the reach you need. So there’s no need for 3x repetition, people understanding the message in one go and that message remaining retrievable: everything that’s published remains out there. And you can build on that, and don't have to keep starting out again.

4. Integrate earned- and paid media, for example by collaborating in innovative, eye-catching(!) ways with those media open to innovation - reserve room for this in your media budget. Example: for Huawei, we launched Holland’s first AR cover model with Cosmopolitan.

Where will all this lead? Besides my believe that we’re going to see more and more earned-driven campaigns in the Netherlands — this is still in its infancy compared to other countries — I think it’s pretty clear: more impact; and less waste, noise, advertising. And there’s a lot to be said for that in these times of global waste and excess.

Date 15 May 2020

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