Close-Up: Should advertising agencies offer PR?

The emergence of social media is driving the two disciplines closer together.

In the short space of a week, two ad agencies, Beattie McGuinness Bungay and VCCP, have announced plans to offer clients a PR capability.

BMB's in-house offering will be headed up by PR professionals who will only handle consumer communication-based PR like social media, online PR and events.

Icon, a joint venture between Chime Communications' VCCP Group and Resonate, is more niche. Pitching itself as a hybrid digitally led social communications agency, it aims to create social relationships with brands to encourage customer advocacy.

Both start-ups, which the owners claim have been set up on very little initial outlay, will combine the skills and knowledge of existing staff with the expertise of PR professionals. BMB will hire four PR experts while Icon, which is managed by three existing Chime employees pulled from the PR, digital and advertising disciplines, will employ consultants.

Michael Frohlich, one of the three managing directors at Icon, says: "Icon is founded on a clear client need, recognising that advocacy and trust are at the centre of modern communications. The proliferation of media channels across digital and traditional media means that many forms of targeting the mass consumer have changed. There needs to be a new way of attacking the marketing mix."

Social media is the catalyst for blurring the divisions between PR and advertising. However, there is still a clear difference between consumer communications through social media and the more traditional PR based on a great story that attracts media interest (and often that story might be about a high-profile, new ad campaign).

"Social media has exploded the opportunities for campaigns to be seen and talked about beyond the paid-for element of the campaign," Matt Edwards, Engine's managing director, says. "And if you can offer this to clients at the start of the process, it can be a huge bonus."

Mark Cridge, glue London's chief executive, says: "Conversations are happening whether you are part of them or not. It requires faster turnaround and closer collaboration between disciplines."

Andrew McGuinness, the co-founder and chief executive of BMB, says clients believe an agency offering PR increases cost savings while decreasing stress levels.

One client who has chosen this approach is Marjolein van Kampen, the global brand PR director at Unilever. He says: "Icon is unique in the roster as it can offer channel-neutral thinking, which is key to an integrated approach between the various disciplines (advertising, digital and PR). Channel-neutral thinking is a highly desired agency skill and will encourage our brand teams to explore all channels."

John Owen, the planning partner at Dare, says: "Ad agencies have been, for whatever reason, boxed in a corner as suppliers of ad communications. PR gives agencies the opportunity to break out of it."

However, the PR company Freud's acquisition of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters in 2007 did not result in a blueprint for how the two disciplines can work successfully together. Part of the problem, it seems, is that client companies are still themselves siloed, with separate PR divisions headed by executives who like to have their own agency arrangements.

Perhaps the recession will start to see such internal divisions eroded in the search for cost savings. If not, the new hybrids could find it hard to win client support.

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AGENCY HEAD - Andrew McGuinness, co-founder and chief executive, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

"Clients are looking for cannier ways to get through to their audience. PR is one of the ways to cut conventional media out of the loop and to put our message forward to consumers. The gap between a good progressive advertising agency and a PR agency is coming together anyway.

"It is expensive bringing somebody up to speed with a client's business. Also, lots of clients find it a pain in the arse to manage multiple agencies as it takes up time.

"We develop ideas that will work across all aspects of communication, are developed at the same point and also feed off each other."

CLIENT - Julia Nolan, marketing manager, Wonderbra and Shock Absorber

"I find it really useful as a client to work with a multi-disciplined agency. You used to communicate to your target audience, but now you communicate with them. Your target audience is talking about your brand whether you are part of that conversation or not.

"Wonderbra's 'D-G' launch pulled together so many disciplines for the same campaign. The whole project was put through Iris with all the departments speaking to each other. It felt like one campaign and I didn't have to brief different agencies. It takes away some of the stress and time.

"PR is an anchor to a lot of the marketing we do. PR explodes the whole campaign."

DIGITAL SPECIALIST - Amelia Torode, head of digital strategy, VCCP; managing director, Icon

"We're talking about public relationships as opposed to public relations. I think it comes down to trust and the bottom line is people trust other people more than they trust advertising.

"You have to work out how you can create interest and get consumers involved in ideas and campaigns. It has to be about working together with people.

"If people are consuming less advertising you need to think differently about how you connect with them. PR is a lot more like digital. It's a conversation, it's about creating interest hooks, being continuous, reactive, fluid and topical. You can't spend six months refining a script."

CREATIVE - Mark Whelan, creative director, Cake

"If agencies are drafting in PR professionals, there is no reason why they shouldn't do PR. It would be a mistake if they thought it is simply about making ads famous - that's self-serving. It is about making brands famous.

"There is a need for integration; whether you do it under one roof or as different agencies. But there are lots of things that clients want to talk about outside of advertising. Will they double up or split fees among PR agencies?

"One danger comes if an ad agency sees themselves at the top of the communication hierarchy. PR is an expertise, an understanding and a skill. You can't force advertising rules on to the PR discipline."