Opinion: Sir Martin's the one living in la la land

PR agencies are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with advertising firms because traditional ads are almost finished, says CEO of W Communications

Warren Johnson
Warren Johnson

Sir Martin Sorrell certainly isn’t pulling any punches with his latest pronouncement: that any PR consultancy that thinks it’s capable of competing with an ad agency on an equal basis for a prime piece of business is deluded – or, as he puts it, "living in la la land".

WPP’s CEO didn’t get where he is today without knowing a thing or two. And like every other PR professional, I take my hat off to his virtuosity at generating headlines. But on this point I have to wonder whether it’s actually Sir Martin who’s living in la la land.

The revolution that began with the fast-forward button on our cable TV boxes and the advent of Facebook has utterly transformed consumer behaviour and media habits – effectively ending the supremacy of the 30-second spot and chewing up the banner ad for good. Paid advertising is, if not entirely dead and buried, then being sized up by the Grim Reaper.  

Talk to pretty much anyone on the supply side in today’s ad industry and they’ll tell you the same story: clients simply aren’t buying the wall-to-wall TV-and-poster campaigns of yesteryear. They can’t afford to simply cross their fingers and underwrite seven- or eight-figure media buys, because in their heart of hearts, they know that consumers’ eyeballs are elsewhere.

Yes – in the real world (as opposed to the one Sir Martin inhabits), people are comprehensively tuning out traditional advertising because they’re sick and tired of being sold to in the same old ways. And that’s not just a PR man shooting from the hip, by the way – it’s an analysis that’s supported by actual facts.

A recent study by The Guardian discovered that, astoundingly, of the more than 3,500 advertising messages directed at Londoners during the average working day, the number retained by each individual was close to zero.

Meanwhile, is anyone actually surprised that the new breed of ad blockers are currently the highest-rated downloads on the Apple App Store? Of course they aren’t. You don’t have to be Sir Martin to see which way the wind is blowing.

Marketeers are consumers, too, and just like the rest of us, they understand that real engagement lies in the earned spheres – such as social, print, and digital – that have long been part of the PR industry’s DNA.

In blunt terms, they’re increasingly asking themselves: why pay good money for something people aren’t looking at anymore?

While the power of a great creative idea to capture the popular imagination remains as strong as ever, the notion that this can only be achieved through buying airtime or column inches is increasingly redundant. The brand stories we remember are found in the news and feature pages of the tabloids, playing on YouTube, or shared on Twitter.

The most switched-on comms chiefs increasingly understand that PR agencies are far more likely to come up with the right answers, rather than the most convenient ones; that in a multi-platform world, it’s what you can influence, rather than what you make, that counts.

Sir Martin speaks for an industry that has never been short of bravado, but may be rapidly running out of answers. Businesses that genuinely want to connect with consumers are waking up to a new reality. And where are they turning? To PR agencies, of course.

Once upon a time, a two-way pitch between an ad shop and a PR agency would have been unthinkable. The fact that Sir Martin can even bring himself to acknowledge the possibility is in itself a sign that the jig is up for ad-land.

So, despite his fighting talk, I rather fancy Sir Martin is painfully aware that the day when PR becomes the lead marketing discipline is close at hand. The thought is probably giving him the odd sleepless night. He does well to pretend otherwise.

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