Are PR people too nice?

People in PR are nicer than people in advertising. A lot nicer.

When I joined a public relations agency after two decades in advertising, I noticed a lot of differences between the two businesses right away. But one that stuck out, and has continued to, is this: 

People in PR are nicer than people in advertising. A lot nicer.

I first noticed this while I was being courted for my job.  Everyone I met was friendly and gracious, completely focused on making me comfortable. I chalked this up to top-grade recruiting skills. But the warm vibes didn't stop when I accepted my job. If anything, they amped up. 

Everyone in the agency was agreeable and easy to get along with – from the person behind the front desk to the CEO. 

It didn't feel forced – as if everyone had been instructed to be nice.  Rather, it seemed completely genuine. I sensed then that everyone at the agency sincerely liked one another. And now, I like them.

It wasn't that way in advertising. I worked with people who were brilliant and successful and often quite fun. But were they nice? Not at all.

In an ad agency, everything is a fight. Creatives fight for the best assignments and account execs fight about who sits next to the client. I remember fights about where we should go for lunch. I made a lot of friends in the business and left with some fond memories – but everyone is so aggressive, it was frankly exhausting. 

I talked with one of my new colleagues about this recently, and he offered a theory. Historically, he said, ad execs could get away with bad behavior and atrocious social skills because their business produced something tangible: namely, ads. 

If the ads they made were breaking through and connecting with their intended audience, then agency management – not to mention clients – were willing to overlook a profane vocabulary or tendency to smash things. Write the most popular TV spot on the Super Bowl, in other words, and you can behave any way you like.

In the world of public relations, my friend continued, it's always been different. 

Until very recently, PR agencies didn't produce many tangible products. It was all about relationships. That's how PR execs won business and got their stories placed in magazines, blogs, and news shows - by cultivating strong, positive relationships with clients, co-workers, and media sources.

This resonated with me as I settled into my new job, and frankly, concerned me. After all, it's a challenging time to be in the marketing industry. Is being nice a sound business strategy? Or a liability? “Nice guys finish last,” as Leo Durocher famously said.

So I took a step back to consider what's happening in the industry. My employer, a very forward-looking PR agency, is beefing up its creative department with TV writers, advertising creatives, and digital designers, and we're beginning to make “stuff” for our clients like videos, microsites, and billboards - just like the ad agencies are. 

This past summer we produced a number of popular web videos, and we're getting invited more and more often to present ideas for TV commercials.  

Like many others, I believe it won't be long before PR agencies challenge ad agencies for almost every content assignment their clients request. 

And that, I realized, is when our well-honed disposition to be friendly and collaborative – rather than antagonistic and combative - will reveal itself to be not a liability, but a secret weapon.

Consider it from a client's perspective. If both your ad agency and your PR agency are producing great content for you, but one of them is friendlier and easier to work with, to whom would you give your next juicy, lucrative assignment? Exactly.

Charlie Tercek, a former creative director at the ad agencies McGarryBowen, Ogilvy, Grey, and Neighbor, is the chief creative officer at GolinHarris.

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