What may be less well known is that he is a salesman, and what he's selling is his own consultancy company, Ries & Ries. Not that that should necessarily undermine his message, but it's usually a help to know where an author is coming from.
Ries' case is very simple and goes something like this. By forgetting it is about selling, advertising has dug its own grave. At the same time, consumers no longer trust advertising messages. They do, however, trust what they hear from their friends and what they hear and see in the media.
When it comes to launching and building brands, therefore, PR is best.
Advertising does have a role, Ries concedes, but it is to sustain and defend brands when they are up and running. Just to make it more interesting, Ries throws in a conspiracy theory. The WPPs of this world know this "truth" but, because they make more money from their ad agencies than from their PR networks, they suppress it.
Some might say that this is not a simple case for PR but a simplistic one. But Ries may have a point. Some advertising is terrible and does the industry a disservice, especially when agencies are more interested in their own agendas. And PR can build brands, as the likes of Red Bull, Ben and Jerry's and Starbucks show. Equally, however, one can point to brands built by advertising: Dove, Direct Line, Orange and Skoda.
I suspect Ries knows this, and that there is an interesting debate to be had here. But the didactic approach he adopts, and his refusal to accept there might be shades of grey, don't encourage it. This is a shame. PR does have a role in building brands, but so does advertising, and the really interesting stuff happens when the two work together. Ries assumes agencies will take an over-my-dead-body approach to this. That may have been true once, but I don't think it is any more.
For someone who claims to consult for Fortune 500 companies, Ries seems astonishingly naive at times. He argues a good case for PR, but forgets - or ignores - that it has a slow-burn effect on a product or service, making that product vulnerable to a swift-footed competitor. He ignores the role of retailers and their power to demand suppliers advertise. Imagine Unilever taking a new product to Tesco and saying: "Advertising doesn't work, we're putting all our efforts into PR." Exit one chastened Unilever brand manager.
Not least, Ries doesn't practise what he preaches. My trade copy of the book listed all the proposed marketing activity to support its launch.
Items one and two on the list were ... advertising. Over to you, Al.
- The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR by Al and Laura Ries is published this month by HarperCollins.
- PR report, p21.