PR Firm Speed-Dating, and the Battle for Digital’s Hand

by Philippe Paget on October 6, 2009


Around 2:30, the Adforum Magical Mystery Tour hit the Paley Center for Media, mainly to hear presentations from PR folks wiggling their toes in the digital and social media spaces.

We got to the auditorium and were stopped at the threshold by AdForum Dream Leader, Hervé de Clerck. He motioned to a pile of books on a small table dividing two sets of chairs, facing each other.

“Pick a book,” he said. Based on which book we picked, we had to sit on either one side of the table or the other.

The books were Al and Laura Ries’ The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR and Stefan Engeseth’s cheeky response, The Fall of PR & the Rise of Advertising. A bit of dithering followed de Clerck’s instructions as consultants pondered the grave implications of this prophetic choice. Then they divided quickly: in a few bats of the eye, most of the Ries books were gone.

The PR side was swollen with smug chair-seizers. And on the ad side? A thin crowd, composed of embarrassed giggles and tight smiles.

The front row of each side was outfitted with specialists from the respective disciplines. For the agencies: VP Global Brands Jane Barratt of Sapient Interactive, CEO Moray MacLennan of M&C Saatchi, and PDT Marian Salzman of Euro RSCG, North America. For the PR firms: Director of Insights Steve Rubel of Edelman Digital, VP-Digital Nadina Guglielmetti of Waggener Edstrom, EVP-Strategic Planning Jerry Johnson of Brodeur, and Worldwide Director-Digital Julie Atherton of Hill & Knowlton.

In typically convivial manner de Clerck asked us to talk about who owns the digital space — and, in effect, social media. I didn’t expect much to come of this, but as the next five or six minutes rolled by, a surprisingly heated discussion — no, an argument — developed.

Coming from the ad blog universe, it’s a little shocking to see two industries — the majority of whose work is decidedly not dazzling — attack each other with such flagrant hubris. A search consultant raised his hand and reminded them this is about the customer — and while everyone gave the requisite nods, the afternoon dissolved into a headlock over who should get most of the client’s budget.

Since social media is about communicating, PR argued they’re the natural choice — plus, they’re being asked to do things they never had to before, like help rebrand companies.

Agencies argued creative is what drives conversation.

In response to that crazy notion, Steve Rubel said something like, “But we’re in the chaos industry. And that’s more scalable than ideas.”

At this point my brain exploded. In a well-intentioned attempt to save the day, Jerry Johnson hastened to add that being in the “chaos industry” is about mitigating conversation, something PR took time to fine-tune. (Unless you’re an ad blogger, in which case they hit you with celebrity sightings, indie CDs, platform announcements, emails with the wrong name in them, emails with nothing in the body but an attached Word document, pitches in the wrong language, mass mailers with open CCs…)

Someone brought up the Obama campaign, for which Fleishmann-Hillard has received considerable credit. Director-New Biz Claire Behar was present and she accepted the praise modestly, adding that in the future PR and agencies will combine strengths to aid clients. There won’t necessarily be a big winner at the end of the day.

(In private discussion about the debate, Behar said these converging spaces are like land grabs, hence all the ME! ME! ME!-ing. But in defense of the other panelists, things calmed down a lot once she put her two cents in.)

With time it’ll occur to the really good PR firms and agencies that the secret to success lies in realizing their goals are united: constructing a message and communicating it effectively to receptive users. Based on the skillsets of the people involved and the needs of the brand, sometimes PR will have more control, and sometimes agencies will.

Two brands that managed to successfully penetrate the online space, in part with help from PR firms and agencies who understand that zany “unity” thing, are Ben & Jerry’s and Sharpie. Representatives from their companies, comm firms and agencies were at ad:tech Chicago last month to discuss how they cracked the social media nut — and witnessing how harmoniously they communicate is enviable for even the freshest of brands.

After all that madness, we were formally introduced to three PR firms in what was playfully dubbed speed-dating: where each company talks for half an hour about why they’re special.

Presenters included John W. Bentz of Waggener Edstrom, who glibly informed us that his firm is second in breadth only to Edelman, thanks in part to its long dedicated relationship with Microsoft. He was followed by CEO Andrea Coville of Brodeur, whose strengths seem to lie in healthcare and non-profit; and Edelman’s Steve Rubel.

Instead of pitching us about Edelman, Rubel gave us five digital trends to watch:

  • Media reforestation — the death of magazines, newspapers, CDs, books and other cool things we consume with our eyes and ears, at the hands of digital alternatives.
  • Satisfaction guaranteed — people are using social media to complain about tech or product issues, and they expect to have those problems addressed on the forums they’re using to complain about them. Consider the CRM strengths of Twitter for companies like Amazon, Dell and Zappos.
  • Less is the new more. M&C Saatchi comes to mind.
  • Corporate All-Stars — your employees are probably all on social networks anyway. Take note of those that can become online all-stars for your company, and activate them.
  • The power of pull. Nobody’s very responsive to pushed information anymore; we now live in fun Huxley-esque bubbles where we pick what content, services and experiences we want in our lives. Consider how much of your traffic comes from search, for example. Prepare accordingly

After that, we were given handy printouts of restaurants and set loose upon the city like carrier pigeons.

That wraps up Day 1. Catch you tomorrow, when we’ll be visiting Ogilvy, BBDO, Profero and The Graduate Center at CUNY.

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