Bell still practicing pure PR

Tom Bell is perhaps not the most obvious person to feature for the first ever profile in PRWeek. After all, he's just moved to 285 Madison Avenue, home of Young & Rubicam - an advertising agency.

Tom Bell is perhaps not the most obvious person to feature for the first ever profile in PRWeek. After all, he's just moved to 285 Madison Avenue, home of Young & Rubicam - an advertising agency.

But the former president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller has still got public relations in his blood. He's still preaching the gospel of PR. And, as chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam, he is still practicing what he has always preached.

Yes, that's right. From this hallowed sanctuary of advertising, where for 75 years, Young & Rubicam has been lovingly crafting commercials for TV, press, and billboards, Bell is now actively recommending that clients use PR. Can he be serious?

'Absolutely,' he says. 'We'll advise clients to use disciplines that are most powerful for them. And yes, that could mean just PR. If you consider yourself responsible to clients - and we are intensely focused on the client - the smartest thing is to do the most cost-effective thing, and yes, that can often be PR.'

Like, when? 'We had a client, last week, who agreed that the next step was to beef up media relations, rather than advertising.

We also had a situation with a would-be client, a new start-up venture that was doing terribly well, and he thought it was time to do some advertising.

But we said: 'No, the product is not ready yet. What you should do is spend $3 million on PR and direct mail, and you'll get (the equivalent of) $30 million of advertising. Then, next year, you'll get to the size where commercials will work more effectively."

The client has yet to give the go-ahead to this strategy. Clearly such enlightened thinking is taking time to catch on. But Bell is confident that it will:

'I think the time for integrated communications is here. This lot (Young and Rubicam) has been trying to sell it for a long time, but there weren't many buyers. But in today's world, there is a real demand for integrated global communications support.'

And it was the desire to really make integrated marketing work that brought about Bell's move. 'We thought, if we're going to believe in it, we've really got to do it,' he explains.

'The client wants integrated thinking; wants a communications partner who is comfortable with all the disciplines, and sells all the disciplines. That's what my appointment is saying.'

So, why do it from the ad agency side? Bell believes advertising provides 'a better perch.' 'There's a much greater opportunity when you own the principal client relationship, and that's usually advertising.

'You can't order this done. You can't make your divisions do it. You need to be in business across the table from the client, in order to say, 'The best way is to pursue these various resources': TV, direct mail, database management, and perception management.

'We'll do it one client at a time. It's not right for everyone, but since we now have so much more data on their customers, it encourages a more complex solution. It's also becoming increasingly apparent that externalities are having a huge influence on business: communities, regulators, consumer advocates, analysts, and, yes, journalists.'

The advertising clients are listening, says Bell. 'Five years ago, when you tried to explain, the CEO would say, 'I'm interested.' Now they're saying 'Yeah, you're right.' Clients realize they can't leave those externalities to chance.

'PR influences all those third parties. That's why it's growing at 20%. It's not just the economy that is driving it. It's the fundamental premise of perception management. If you're looking for just the voice, you'll get left out. The premise has changed.'

Bell believes, however, that as well as timing - to say nothing of his own arrival - it's going to work for Young & Rubicam now because they have refined the approach. 'By global communications support, what we don't mean is 'one stop shopping.' You don't even have to use all our services. We want people to buy our thinking, even if they use another agency for some of the work. We don't try to sell the companies; now, we sell the disciplines. We don't mention the name, we mention the talent.'

Also notably absent from the vocabulary of Bell is the phrase 'public relations.' At Burson-Marsteller he coined the phrase 'perception management' because he felt the name better reflected the discipline as he understood it to be.

'We don't think PR is what PR firms do. Most people think it's media relations and events. But for us it's way more than that. It's public affairs, community affairs, training, change management, management consultancy, government relations.'

It's not integrated marketing, in fact, that Bell believes is the biggest problem facing public relations. The major challenge is its own image.

'All this stuff about 'spin' is bullshit. We're there to help the customer cope. I have management that says to me 'How can I persuade the board that I've got a PR company doing change management?' It just doesn't fit easily with their image of PR.

'We have to convince people that PR is not what they think, or change the name of what they call it.'

As Peter Georgescu, chairman and CEO of holding company Young & Rubicam, Inc. says: 'PR is one of the most underrated, underutilized brand techniques. And the crime of it is that it's very cost-effective.'

The crime is not lost on Bell, but solving the crime is harder still.

'I don't know how many millions it would take to elevate the cause. PR has one device at its fingertips that no one else owns. We speak through credible third parties. The days of going to the media as a flak are long gone. It comes through professors, analysts, politicians, and special interest groups.

'But the conundrum is that our principal voice, the journalist, is also our No. 1 critic. That is the Gordian knot.'

Tom Bell - Chairman and CEO Young & Rubicam

1973: Chief of staff, US Sen. William Brock

1976: Management Consultant

1982: President and CEO, Hudson Institute

1987: Executive vice president, Ball Corporation

1989: Vice chairman and COO, Burson-Marsteller

1994: Vice chairman, Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation

1995: President and CEO, Burson-Marsteller and President/ CEO of the Diversified Communications Group

1998: Chairman and CEO, Young & Rubicam Advertising.

 

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