News Analysis: Online video reveals agency divide

In the wake of Google's acquisition of YouTube, Hannah Marriott asks if PR agencies are threatened by consumer brands' growing use of online video, or capitalising on a useful youth marketing technique.

Anyone who still thought YouTube was just for bored teenagers got a wake-up call last week, when Google acquired the video-sharing portal for $1.65bn (£890m).

The site may be flush with low-budget clips of keyboard-playing kittens and football tricks gone wrong, but it is also being used by an increasing number of consumer brand campaigns.

Just 18 months after its launch, YouTube boasts 100 million clips and 20 million 18 to 49-year-old users every month, including 3.6 million Brits.

Much of YouTube's success (like Google's) owes to its simplicity, allowing technophobes to easily download video-clips.

Its democratic modus operandi has also been important: anyone can make and upload a clip for free, and the most-watched and most-discussed clips are the most prominently displayed on the site.

Google's investment suggests further commercial exploitation is on the cards: in August, YouTube launched ‘brand channels', which companies pay to use.

Consumer backlash
Anti-commercial feeling means that brands that try to get involved must tread carefully. Just last week, a P Diddy and Burger King ‘brand channel' attracted more than 2,000 negative comments, picked up in the mainstream press. One read: ‘Hey Burger King, stay away from our website… I will never eat at BK again.'

Katy Howell, MD of online specialist PR agency Immediate Future, worked with Sony Bravia on its ‘bouncing balls' ad, which ranks among YouTube's most-watched submissions (see below). But it was also spoofed by Tango. ‘You have to be ready to take the flak and spoofs with YouTube,' she concedes.

Despite the risks, some PROs are increasingly producing clips for YouTube and similar sites such as MySpace and Al Gore's Current - which has recently signed an agreement to launch as a Sky TV channel in the UK and Ireland. There are also newcomers such as VideoJug and Video­Egg. Cake head of digital Jez Jowett says it has become ‘second nature' for agency staff to record events - from press conferences to gigs - and edit and distribute clips within hours. For more professional recordings, Cake teams up with independent production agencies such as Maverick Media and Viral Factory.

At the other extreme, many PROs have never been involved with sites such as YouTube, and find it difficult to convince clients of the worth of online communications. Bradley O'Mahoney partner Tony Bradley says he finds ‘tried and tested' offline PR works best for his agency's public-sector clients.

He points out that there must be a strategic reason for posting a video - and that video must suit the brand.

Howell says: ‘If a PR person came to me and said "I want to write a press release", I would ask "what on; why?".It is the same with social media.'

Production values do not always matter. The Television Consultancy MD Marc de Leuw says a clip's success depends on its content: ‘The secret of viral marketing is content. You can give a clip a kick-start on YouTube, but it will only take off if people like it and forward it to their friends.'

In-house comms bosses say they would turn to their ad or digital agencies ahead of their PR equivalents if they wanted to produce a clip. This leaves some PROs concerned that the rise of digital media could see budgets transferred elsewhere.

But Firefly Communications MD Mark Mellor insists such an attitude is ‘defeatist'.

Growing in popularity
The increasing use of video-clips certainly means firms' marcoms activity must be integrated to enable the transmission of a seamless brand message.

Mitchell Kaye, MD of start-up agency Mischief, argues: ‘The most successful online executions are usually part of an integrated below-the-line comms campaign. Tango's spoof of the Sony ad was exploited through a media story that appeared in most tabloids.'

The rate of people checking out a YouTube clip can be accelerated through relationships with influential bloggers, or by targeting offline media. This - drawing the right people's attention to a clip - is where PROs can earn their salt.

Canny PR agencies have already invested in simple in-house recording and editing facilities, or built relationships with digital production agencies. Howell says: ‘PR agencies shouldn't set up relationships with production companies at the last minute. Prepare, so if needed you can issue a video statement at a time of crisis.'

If anything, the increasing use of YouTube et al as a marcoms tool highlights the divide between digitally savvy consultancies and the more traditional media-relations agencies.

But a camera - or a relationship with an online marketer - are the only things an agency needs to tout  digital comms expertise. So such activity can surely only grow in popularity among PR agencies and their clients.

YouTube: hits and misses for brands

HITS
Sony Bravia

Ad for Sony LCD TV, with bouncing balls in San Francisco.
Click here to view

Tango Clear
Spoof on the Bravia ad, filmed in Swansea using fruit rather than balls.
Click here to view

Ok Go
Music video of Swedish band OK Go.
Click here to view

Ford Ka
A banned advert featuring an ‘evil'
Ford Sportka killing a pigeon.
Click here to view


MISSES
Diddy and Burger King

Diddy causes outrage by announcing the deal between ‘two kings' - himself and Burger King.
Click here to view

Agency.com pitch
Much-derided pitch for Subway brief - which Agency.com decided to film and put on the site.
Click here to view

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