Advertising, PR and our obsession with definitions

Andrew McGuinness has quit advertising and is now running a public relations agency. But, he insists, today's category-defying creative work is beginning to make such labels redundant.

  • Chipotle


  • Microsoft Bing

    Microsoft Bing

  • Dove


  • Queensland Tourism

    Queensland Tourism

  • Walkers



For at least a decade, advertising has been trying to escape its own legacy. From the latest big TV commercial and the "agency reel" being a point of pride, agencies have fallen over themselves to say (and, in many cases, prove) they are about more than the 30-second TV ad. Indeed, the ability to execute brilliant TV ads – which, for almost 50 years, was at the heart of an ad agency offering – has become less a reason for pride and more a perceived weakness. The industry will sneer at other, highly successful businesses, saying "they’re still just a TV agency", while clients frequently cite the disproportionate emphasis placed on TV within agencies as a matter of frustration.

And they’re right. Many ad agencies (and all the very best ones) have adapted to create broader ideas, which can be executed across a variety of platforms. This is reflected in the ideas we celebrate as an industry: in 1999, Guinness "surfer" was universally applauded, but now winning ideas tend to be broader. Dove’s "real beauty" work and "dumb ways to die" for Metro trains are examples of this.

This change is long overdue. Going back to the 60s, Fairfax Cone said: "Advertising’s what you do when you can’t go see somebody. That’s all it is." This is a definition I’ve always found reassuringly simple and directional. We love to make things complex for ourselves, but the truth is that the majority of the time we have an issue or message we want people to engage with and, at its simplest, our task is to find the most effective means of achieving that goal.

Encouraged by the way clients budget, plus the demand to categorise ideas for awards and even the structure of our trade press, we love to put things into neat boxes: that’s an ad idea, that’s a sales promotion, that’s PR. However, the ideas that excite me most are increasingly those that evade definition. Was "the best job in the world" for Queensland Tourism an inspired advertising idea or a stunning piece of PR? Who cares? It’s a cracking idea of which I wish I’d been part.

This new breed of idea can come from, and is coming from, organisations of all backgrounds

It’s for this reason that I love the Cannes Titanium award, which celebrates ideas that defy channel- or discipline-based definitions. From the Nike+ FuelBand to the Barack Obama campaign, "real beauty sketches" to Microsoft Bing’s "decode", these are ideas that have a fame that extends well beyond the boundaries of our industry.

The quest to become a broader-based communications agency isn’t something that is exclusive to the world of advertising. "Best job…" was produced by Nitro, an agency whose origin was digital; Creative Artists Agency, an agency that itself defies definition, created the stunning Chipotle work; and Red Bull continues to develop ideas that defy convention… and gravity. This new breed of idea can come from, and is coming from, organisations of all backgrounds.

Which brings me to why I was asked to write this article. "Why have you decided to leave advertising to join a PR agency?" The truth is I simply don’t see it like that. Yes, Freuds is a superb PR agency that, over the past 29 years, has built a phenomenal re­putation within the industry – something it will continue to protect and develop. But, alongside that work, it has also created many "Titanium" ideas: "do us a flavour", created with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for Walkers; more than 20 years of collaborating with Richard Curtis on Red Nose Day (something next year we’re hoping to take to the US); and working with Bono on the development of the (Red) brand, a partnership he credited when awarded the LionHeart award in Cannes.

Like all the world’s very best agencies, Freuds combines expertise in a very specific, specialist area with the ability to create and execute ideas that defy categorisation. The chance to work with an incredibly talented and dynamic group of people to help define its next decade, combined with the opportunity to continue the phenomenal growth of Seven Dials, is a rare one indeed. So I don’t mind whether I’m called a PR man or an adman. Ideas are ideas, however you categorise them.

Andrew McGuinness is the chief executive of Freuds, founder of BMB and chairman of Seven Dials