Opinion: Perspective - PR deserves its place at Cannes... up to a point

I've just had lunch with VCCP. Suddenly they're a rather more interesting agency since the Meerkat was born and O2 became so much more than a mobile network.

Rather quietly, and while bigger agencies were trying to renavigate their super-tankers, VCCP has integrated and extended and digitised. And they spent quite some time at lunch talking about PR, which is an interesting new conversation to be having with an advertising agency (though it surely can't be long before the phrase "advertising agency" becomes a little derogatory).

As you'll read on page 25, PR is now firmly part of the Cannes Advertising Festival from this year, and VCCP's paymaster, Tim Bell, is heading the PR Lions jury. But, really, do advertising and PR belong in the same breath, let alone shoulder to shoulder on the Carlton Terrace or under the same corporate roof?

Of course. Viral pass-on, word-of-mouth and free editorial coverage have been key drivers of some of the most successful recent "ad" campaigns (Dairy Milk's "eyebrows", T-Mobile's flashmob campaign, last year's Hovis blockbuster).

To assume that the two disciplines of PR and advertising remain distinct and separate businesses is not only to ignore the most important opportunity to amplify a good idea, but to ignore the way the digital world is changing the communications landscape.

So far (and this is the case with VCCP) PR is making its way into the advertising lexicon primarily through social media, aligned to a digital axis. Perhaps that makes it easier for agencies to begin nibbling at the PR cake, doing so without upsetting some of the rigid fiefdoms that clients still maintain internally.

But it doesn't take much imagination to see that creative ideas of any hue will have more power if they are actually conceived with an understanding of the PR opportunities that might follow. And it doesn't take much imagination to see that maximising those opportunities might be more effectively achieved if co-ordinated by the team that conceived the original idea, rather than handed to a PR agency with its own agenda.

None of which makes PR's arrival at Cannes seem anything more than an attempt to grow the festival's coffers, though. The point of the collision between PR and advertising is that the two disciplines can work so well in harmony. The PR Lions look set to simply reinforce the old siloed model.

Despite all the pre-unveiling excitement, this week's Digital Britain report could never hope to be anything other than the first chapter in a very long story. Anyone working in the communications and content industry knows that the pace of change is so rapid that something decided one day can seem hopelessly inadequate the next.

So we should not be disappointed that Digital Britain has, in reality, not gone very far at all. Proposals for close co-operation between BBC Worldwide and Channel 4 are the most productive and obvious conclusions to come from the report, though allocating the shared revenues back to the individual broadcast brands could be a challenge. And a more blatant commercial approach from BBC Worldwide, but more separated from the rest of the BBC, will suit advertisers nicely.

Plans for a clampdown on internet piracy, though perhaps welcome news for content creators, do seem to ignore the sort of inevitabilities outlined in Chris Anderson's new book Free, discussed on page 10 of this week's issue. The game has moved on.

But, really, advertising figures little in the Digital Britain report, despite Stephen Carter's provenance. The advertiser and agency world has not pushed hard enough to establish the vital role it must play in driving Digital Britain, and though there's clearly still plenty of time to get the industry's concerns on the Government's agenda, it's not clear that adland recognises the imperative.