PR the hell out of it

With ad campaigns increasingly turning to PR tactics, what effect is this having on agency creative departments and the skills of those who work there?

What’s the best way for brands to reach audiences today? We are swamped with channels now; both the old – television, radio, newspapers, magazines – and the new, via Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc. With so many pathways, it’s easy for your campaign to get lost. Even the biggest ideas can slip through the cracks, missed by those who skip ads on TV or block them on the internet. Brands need to be increasingly inventive to get attention now, and this has led to a marked rise in the use of the PR ‘stunt’, an old-fashioned concept that has developed a new lease of life in the digital age.

Looking through the selected work in this year’s Creative Review Annual, we were struck by how many of the most curious, quirky and unexpected advertising ideas were rooted in public relations. Instead of traditional advertising – which broadly uses paid-for media space to reach the public – these campaigns relied on word-of-mouth to reach people, either via sharing by audiences online or by journalists who recognised a good story and wrote about it.

PR and advertising have always been intertwined, of course. Back in the 1970s, Charles Saatchi realised that the way to get attention for a small ad for the Family Planning Association, intended only to be shown in doctors’ surgeries, was to make the ad itself newsworthy. The ad was the now-iconic Pregnant Man. “He sussed getting PR through advertising,” remembered Jeremy Sinclair (who wrote the ad with art director Bill Atherton) in an interview in CR, October 2010. “The Pregnant Man became famous not for being an ad, it became famous by getting editorial. Charles worked that out early on. By getting into Time magazine, it (and we) became famous.”

Big television ads have also long been fodder for the press. Make your ad surprising, cute or controversial enough and the chances are that you’ll end up in the editorial pages of the newspapers. Advertising star Alex Bogusky built an agency on the back of the use of PR in fact, allegedly telling staff at Crispin Porter & Bogusky (which he left in 2010), “don’t write me a script, write me a press release”. Such an approach has led to countless campaigns, particularly for Burger King, that are as newsworthy as they are divisive to the public.

Space lab to space jump
These ads were still usually rooted in traditional advertising, however, featuring a TV commercial as an initial launching point. Increasingly though, especially with the rise of social media, we’re seeing campaigns that rely almost entirely on PR. Among those that are featured in the Annual this year are the Best in Book-winning YouTube Space Lab competition (above), which challenged 14-18 year olds to design a science experiment to be performed in space; the One Copy Song, where musician Adam Tensta’s latest track could only be listened to by one person at a time via a Facebook app; and Red Stripe Corner Shop, where a local store in Dalston, London was turned into a music instrument which began playing when a customer picked up a can of the lager. Another recent, and even more famous example, is the Red Bull Space Jump, where daredevil Felix Baumgartner did a freefall from the edge of space, and landed himself (and Red Bull) on TV and other media across the globe.

The style and content of these campaigns may be wildly diverse, though all are based on the premise that someone, be it an ordinary member of the public on Facebook, or a member of the press, will write about them and thus word of them will spread. When this happens, the advantages for the advertisers are huge, with the brands reaching their much-coveted audiences through a method that contains far more credibility than paid-for ads. Editorial in newspapers – rightly or wrongly – is trusted far more than the ad space, and the best PR comes from the audience themselves: if your friend ‘shares’ an ad with you, you are far more likely to both watch it and recommend it to others.

In fact, the recent rise in PR in advertising could be tracked to the concurrent rise in social media. “I think it’s got to do mostly with the speed at which things move now,” says Mark Pytlik, founder of Stinkdigital, the company behind Red Stripe Corner Shop. “This is especially true online, where brands’ desires to communicate with audiences on a more personal level necessitates more of the kinds of skills and awareness that PR has traditionally been better at. You could argue that social media management is the thing that sits in the centre of the Venn diagram between advertising and PR.”

Unquantifiable, unreliable
The downsides of placing the promotion of your product or idea into the hands of your audience though is an immediate loss of control, something that clients are rarely excited by. Plus news media may not always get behind your brilliant idea. “PR is unquantifiable and unreliable when it comes to promoting a brand,” says Tony Cullingham, who runs the renowned Watford creative advertising course. “Editors and broadcast producers are a third party and they may or may not decide to run your story. They may not review your product, they may decide to blast it or they might ridicule and make fun of it. And, even if the editor was planning on giving you a favourable story, a strong news day could wipe it out. PR firms don’t guarantee placement, a brand could get nothing and come away with nothing.”

Despite these problems, clients and agencies are increasingly recognising that this is a risk worth taking, and that clever marketing and the use of PR can be more successful (and often cheaper) for a brand than commissioning a good old-fashioned TV spot. Consequently, the creative departments at agencies are beginning to change too, to accommodate the subtle new skills that these kinds of campaigns require. “The best work is the work that is culturally relevant and strikes a nerve,” says Nick Law, EVP, global chief creative officer at R/GA, which created One Copy Song for Adam Tensta. “And with tools like Twitter and Facebook, we know immediately when we accomplish this. We have people in our creative department that naturally think this way. It requires ‘traditional’ creatives to not just think of what will work on TV but to think about what will affect culture.

“PR has always had to ask the question ‘why would anyone care about this? Or share this?’,” Law continues. “This is now the most fundamental question for creatives in the age of digital media. It’s especially true in social media, where it’s hard to just buy an audience’s attention.”

“I think you have to be prepared to improvise more,” says Mark Pytlik of the change to the creative’s role. “PR is a lot about how something is experienced and processed over time, and that extra dimension isn’t intrinsically a part of how a lot of traditional advertising is made. A lot of traditional advertising is really about concepting, crafting and releasing. With more PR-centric work, there’s a whole other phase built into the process that requires you to continue to react and to adjust once that thing has been received by culture. There’s an extra layer of accountability inherent that’s probably both good and bad; good because it probably further encourages the creative industry to think about how audiences might experience and respond to certain pieces, but bad because it perhaps gets us even closer to a world where everything is focus-grouped and user-tested into a very boring middle ground.”

All things to all clients
No matter how popular or effective it may be these days though, no creative ad agency can afford to just focus on PR, and instead a creative department that contains a varied range of skills and talents, across all areas of marketing, is key. “There is a kind of obsession at the moment with creating an integrated story around every advertising campaign,” says Paul Belford, founder of creative agency Paul Belford Ltd and regular CR columnist. “Whether the client needs it or not. It’s understandable, agencies are desperate to rebut the constant sniping from digital ‘specialists/snake oil salesmen’ (take your pick) to prove that they’re good at everything. But this fascination with all things integrated comes despite the strong argument for clients dominating a single medium rather than spreading a finite budget wafer thin across many media and not getting noticed. If that single medium happens to be a stunt that gets a million hits on YouTube, fine. But the campaign for another client might not be that, so the creative department needs a range of people, some of whom who can actually write and art direct.”

This would be relatively straightforward if there was unlimited money to go around at agencies, but in these difficult financial times, it means there is an increasing demand for creatives to be all things to all clients, rather than specialise too narrowly. “We have a problem brewing with everyone being spread too thin,” concludes Belford. “No one can be great at everything but maybe creatives now have no choice but get better at more stuff. And maybe Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule is just going to have to become the 20,000-Hour Rule. A sobering thought.”

 

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