Marketing's gray area

Somewhere between PR and advertising is a marketing niche ready to be snapped up.

Somewhere between PR and advertising is a marketing niche ready to be snapped up.

It was the perfect PR push. Some buzzmeisters found a massively popular song with an infectious refrain that happened to mention a client's brand. They got the product into the band's hands in a few high-profile locales - celebrity-drenched parties, a national TV show - and then let the press take over as they raked in the media impressions, ad equivalency value, and industry plaudits. It was the perfect PR push. Except it was orchestrated by an ad agency. Last year's Polaroid Ambush campaign, in which the instant photography company, with the help of ad firm Euro RSCG Worldwide and support from Paine PR, cashed in on the success of OutKast's "Hey Ya!" that urged millions to "shake it like a Polaroid picture," could be the future of consumer marketing, a future that doesn't look to be friendly to anyone who relies too much on labeling marketing disciplines. The ambush certainly wasn't advertising, even though it had the hipness, reach, and catchiness of a strong creative. It wasn't solely PR, but there was a strong media relations component. It was a sponsorship, but one done on a shoestring budget - the $10,000 or so that was spent to pay for OutKast's parties, in effect the payment for the group's embrace of the cameras and the brand. And then there were the guerrilla- and influencer-marketing components. If this effort is any indication - and with all the focus on celebrity product placement and entertainment branding it seems as if it will be - the way to reach marketing-saturated consumers will, as in the past, require a mix of strategies that range across communications options, from the 30-second spot to magazine features to catalogues. What's different now, a time in which consumers are more harried than ever, is that corporations are less interested in watching rival marketing disciplines claw at each other for budget dollars. "Clients are increasingly asking for ideas, not ads - ideas that are inherently press-worthy, ideas that can extend across multiple disciplines, working both online and offline," says Drew Neisser, president and CEO of the Renegade Marketing Group. "Every ad agency you talk to will suggest it can offer fully integrated 'holistic' communications. But the reality is few can. Ad people for the most part have little respect for their PR counterparts and still create strategies that produce ads, not ideas. PR people look cross-eyed at ad folk, coveting their big media budgets and gasping at their 'frivolous' creativity. These twains don't meet very often, and when they do, it is rarely pretty." Blurring the line between PR, ads The fact is ad and PR firms are coming together more often, if not in a spirit of cooperation, then because they're working off job descriptions that are increasingly similar. They read something like this: "Find a way to get the attention of consumers long enough to move product, without regard for who's doing the work or whether it's an above-the-line or below-the-line strategy." Or, as Euro RSCG managing director Ira Matathia puts it, "The mandate is to connect consumers with brands by all means available in our arsenal." That understanding of client needs led the Havas-owned ad firm to recently unify various disciplines by rolling up seven marketing communications companies in seven disciplines under a single CEO with a single P&L. "It just didn't seem to make a lot of sense to us to have these fiefdoms operating in silos that were really dictated by P&L as much as anything else and have really been trying to kill each other for budgets," he says. Within that structure is a small group of mavens looking for opportunities and moments from the constantly shifting world of pop culture that can provide some benefit to clients. The germ for the Polaroid Ambush idea came from these trends scouts, who noticed the client reference before "Hey Ya!" became a national sensation. That led to a relationship with OutKast, whose credibility with young consumers lent an edge to a brand that needed it in a way that ads couldn't have done. "Advertising, frankly, was not the solution to the problem that Polaroid had," says Matathia. "Polaroid had a series of great ad agencies, terrific advertising campaigns - none of which were able to stop the bleeding because it had a fundamental business problem: it had been displaced by digital photography." Kim Reingold, Polaroid group PR manager, explains the company's recent focus on pop culture, of which the Ambush campaign is a part, this way: "We went through difficult times a few years ago. We needed to find a way to remind people that we're still here, we're still relevant, and we have products that are relevant to people today. Though there's a digital revolution on, there's a place for Polaroid. We were looking for ways to make connections in circles that would elevate the brand in some way, and make it cool and hip." In other words, the embattled and once-bankrupt Polaroid needed a nontraditional marketing effort like the Polaroid Ambush to do what traditional advertising is perhaps best known for: associating intangible brand assets to products. Of course, if this mentality were adopted on an industry level, it would spell trouble for the ad firms. And, in many places, it has been adopted as more marketers, faced with tighter budgets, tough choices, and technological challenges like TiVo, shy away from big ad buys in favor of cheaper communications vehicles. The consequent troubles facing the industry have been highlighted in a number of outlets - from its industry trades to business magazines like BusinessWeek and Fortune - but how these firms will deal with their challenges remains to be seen. To be sure, one possibility is that it will continue to encroach on PR's territory. A recent survey by the American Association of Advertising Agencies found that 77% of member agencies offer in-house PR services. The reasons for this were clear: 68% of the firms said that PR has higher profit margins because of many factors, including the need for less support staff and less overhead costs. What the survey doesn't demonstrate is the quality of the services offered or how integrated the PR offering is with the ad services. For these reasons, many PR pros understood the results as less of a harbinger of more brutal competition for PR dollars than as another confirmation of a marketing and media environment that is blurring lines and could make the services of PR agencies more in demand. To Rick French, president and CEO of Raleigh, NC-based French West Vaughan, this means that a PR pro who wants to lead will have to be able to handle jobs beyond the usual media relations tasks. He says "well-versed, well-trained counselors" will end up leading marketing initiatives, regardless of what discipline they come from. "You may find more of those people on the PR side, but, then again, you can talk to a PR person who has no idea how to do a media buy or talk about reach and frequency and gross rating points," he says. "The skill sets are converging, and the ad industries are looking at it as much as a revenue opportunity as they are as an opportunity to add a strategically important discipline." Pushing the boundaries of PR A case in point where PR leads the charge is Brodeur Worldwide's relationship with Toshiba. Brodeur is the lead agency for its integrated marketing efforts, helping the consumer electronics brand morph from a tech brand into a lifestyle one. About three years ago, the company restructured its in-house marketing group, going to a more integrated structure. "It was more traditional, from a consumer electronics point of view, where PR and ad departments are kept separate from one another," says Tina Tuccillo, VP of marketing communications for Toshiba America Consumer Products. Brodeur has been able to step into that environment with efforts that push the boundaries of what PR is. The firm brokered a partnership between Toshiba and high-end furniture company Drexel Heritage, getting Toshiba products distributed in 100 of Drexel's galleries around the US. The firm also has gotten great exposure for Toshiba's flat-panel TV with placements on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. But all of this was in the service of clear business goals - the transformation of Toshiba's brand and the raising of its awareness among women. These business objectives are vital to keep in mind amid discussions of more abstract concepts, like buzz. "It must be in our nature to steep ourselves in a client's business and industry because if we don't digest it well, then we can't communicate with the media and we can't tell the stories clients need us to tell," says Mike Brewer, Brodeur EVP and consumer marketing practice leader. "Other disciplines are more surface-oriented, and because we understand an industry and a client's business, we're able to apply that more easily to help them solve business problems."

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