An executive sticks a tape into a videocassette player. ’We shot the whole thing in California where it was basically produced,’ he explains.
An executive sticks a tape into a videocassette player. ’We shot
the whole thing in California where it was basically produced,’ he
Soon, handsomely shot images appear: a beautiful sunrise, a woman
strolling a beach, a young runner, brightly colored test tubes.
If you guessed that this scene is taking place in an advertising agency,
Stephen Kehoe, senior managing director at BSMG Worldwide, is discussing
the TV commercial his agency made to launch the dollars 50-million,
multiyear, integrated communications campaign on behalf of the Council
for Biotechnology Information.
It’s a scene that’s becoming more common in PR.
PR agencies are in the midst of a creative revolution. Historically
creative strategists, PR pros are becoming more involved in the
execution of creative products, including VNRs, ANRs, Web sites,
multimedia and, yes, print and video advertising. And the agencies are
increasingly building in-house departments to do this work, making them
look almost like ad agencies - or at least, integrated marketing
agencies. PR firms - especially those specializing in public affairs and
corporate reputation - can now whip up corporate image spots that match
Madison Avenue’s best productions.
Talk to Ray Gaulke, president of the Public Relations Society of
America, about PR in the 1960s and 1970s and his memory is: ’Everything
was black and white and printed on paper.’
Take Washington, DC’s Widmeyer-Baker Group, which has spent the last
seven years increasing its in-house capability to produce creative
Melinda Love was working as a freelance designer for the agency seven
years ago when she convinced president and CEO Scott Widmeyer to have
her start an art department. ’They hired me with the expectation that if
I can’t make a go of it doing their design work, then I could always
pitch stories because I also had a PR background.’ She pauses. ’I’ve
never pitched a story since I’ve been working here,’ she says.
But The Widmeyer-Baker Group’s capability moved beyond print: Love heads
its creative/video services, a department with a full-time staff of
seven and two people on contract. One contractor is on-site with his
sophisticated video editing equipment for which the agency pays service
and equipment fees when work is done on its own projects, as it has for
NASA, the Selective Service System and United Parcel Service.
But Love still confronts old stereotypes. ’Many potential clients assume
that traditional public affairs shops only handle media relations, not
high-end creative,’ she says, adding that when they realize what
Widmeyer-Baker creative can do, they often request more work.
Bringing it all in-house
Public Strategies in Austin, TX has gone even further. The public
affairs firm brought in-house the direct mail and media production firms
that it had worked with frequently, a move that managing director Elyse
Yates insists ’makes sense,’ because the 20-person in-house creative
staff can be better coordinated. ’When work is farmed out, my experience
tells me the material is developed but not necessarily consistent,’ she
Indeed, advocates of the in-house approach say it ensures clients
receive greater consistency and quality in terms of message development,
particularly in an era with speeded-up response cycles. Other reasons
for this happening now include the new technology that makes it
possible, especially the Web’s reliance on video. Communications are
more visual than ever, requiring greater concentration of resources by
PR agencies in production and creative direction. And it’s tougher to
break through the clutter of messages, which requires more effort and
’We want to be in the business of developing the strategy for campaigns
that require a strong visual - and emotional - component,’ says Jack
Bergen, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms.
’Creative used to mean a big idea and the packaging - usually executed
in a similar fashion,’ says Tom Hoog, president and CEO of Hill &
Knowlton USA. ’But now we need to take that traditional meaning and move
it into an interactive world.’
Adam Brown, director of eKetchum, the PR agency’s Atlanta-based
interactive unit, contends that in the Internet era ’communicating has
to be more than just a FAQ sheet and a press release. We have to think
more visually to gain coverage and increase the awareness of our
messages.’ Frequently, eKetchum will produce and oversee placement of
the ad banners that can help drive traffic to a Web site. ’It’s really
more PR than advertising,’ insists Brown, noting that the goal of the
banners is to lead people to sites that shape opinions and attitudes
rather than push products.
Brown sees management consulting firms, advertising agencies and
Internet outfits all scrambling to establish themselves as Web site
developers, and some PR agencies have been slow to respond. In his view,
PR firms with in-house Web operations are the most appropriate to
develop Web sites in cases where the client is trying to communicate
information about a company or product.
’You’ve got to make sure the Web site is consistent with the look and
feel of collateral materials and your overall message,’ he says.
But the creative revolution is not just about the Internet; in many
ways, it’s about advertising - at least image advertising.
As Frank Schubert, a partner with Goddard Claussen Porter Novelli,
notes, ’Advertising is no substitute for PR, but it is certainly a great
Adds Torie Clarke, general manager of Hill & Knowlton’s Washington, DC
office: ’Both traditional advertising and traditional PR are morphing
into one another because of the way the world is changing and the way
people are processing information.’
Kosher as a ham sandwich?
For PR purists, advertising is as kosher as a ham sandwich. But even
early PR practitioners such as Carl Byoir and Clem Whitaker and Leone
Baxter employed it. ’I have long believed that advertising is an
effective tool for the delivery of public relations messages,’ says
Burson founded the company that became Burson-Marsteller, the prototype
of the modern PR firm, whose sister company was Marsteller Advertising
until it became part of Young & Rubicam when the ad agency bought B-M
two decades ago. Burson recalls partnering with advertising agency owner
Bill Marsteller to offer ’total communications services.’ ’At one time
as much as 60% of (PR firm) Burson-Marsteller’s business was shared with
(advertising agency) Marsteller,’ he says.
In 1995, B-M brought the advertising unit back as part of the B-M
Firms such as BSMG, Ogilvy, Porter Novelli and B-M all have advertising
or marketing in their heritage, so naturally they would believe in the
integrated campaign model (see sidebar). Scott Wallace, practice chair
of B-M advertising/creative, who has an advertising background, admires
PR’s ability to establish credibility with cost-effectiveness. But it’s
advertising that delivers repetition to make sure the message
Thus, BSMG president Jack Leslie agrees integrated campaigns work and
’advertising is one of the tactics that is often integral to achieving
our client’s objectives.’
Bozell/Eskew, BSMG’s advertising agency, has conducted several ad
campaigns to put a ’human face’ on corporations. For example, the
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association found itself
confronting accusations in the mid-1990s that its industry was more
concerned with profits than serving patients. That led to creation of a
long-running advertising campaign featuring pharma researchers
discussing their work and their commitment to fighting illnesses.
More recently, Microsoft’s image as a large company made it a target in
Washington; Bozell/Eskew advertising showed how ordinary people, from
schoolchildren to small business owners, benefited from the
’With corporate reputation, the PR and advertising messages are so
intertwined that an understanding of the company, the competition and
the broader legislative and regulatory issues are important,’ says Tom
Blim, principal and GM of Bozell/Eskew.
The ads these PR agencies create do have other purposes besides
When the Society of American Florists needed to consolidate its
communications programs, Ogilvy PR Worldwide was retained rather than
the ad agency.
Ogilvy produced category advertising promoting flowers as a perfect
The American College of Gastroenterology turned to Porter Novelli to
create a campaign aimed at convincing frequent heartburn sufferers to
seek medical help. The agency’s campaign presented ’seamless’ messages
through PSAs and paid advertising on national TV. Point-of-purchase
materials were displayed in 100 grocery stores next to over-the-counter
Joe Clayton, executive VP at The Widmeyer-Baker Group, says the English-
and Spanish-language PSAs the agency recently made on behalf of the
Defense Department’s Selective Service System would probably have been
the province of an ad agency or video production house 10 years ago. But
producing in-house allows PR firms greater say over the creative product
in ways that best reflect the strategy. ’It’s a fairly recent
development that PR firms bring as much as they do in-house,’ Clayton
Of course, PR pros aren’t necessarily born with these skills. New
technologies and disciplines confronting PR professionals led PN’s
Washington office to hold sessions explaining to staff how advertising
and creative production can enhance the communications programs of the
agency’s clients. Jim Kingsley, the agency’s senior vice president and
creative director, says the seminars provided PN’s staff with a better
understanding of the terminology and inner workings of the advertising
and creative production processes.
Ben Goddard, partner with Goddard Claussen Porter Novelli, says several
of his agency executives with backgrounds in traditional PR and politics
have developed a good working sense of advertising and video production
without formal training. And he admits that non-advertising folks have
come up with their share of ideas for 40-second TV spots and
one-and-a-half page newspaper ads.
The creative work these agencies do extends beyond the Internet and
Widmeyer-Baker creative is visible in the ’Figure This’ campaign to
promote math literacy among tweens, or kids ages 10 to 13. The agency
received grants totaling dollars 1.5 million from the National Science
Foundation and the Department of Education, of which 40% is devoted to
creative. Love found an illustrator skilled at producing brightly
colored cartoon characters that tested well in research, then hired him
full-time to help develop products such as a math puzzle book and tags
promoting ’Figure This’ for the PSAs of partner organizations.
Fleishman-Hillard helped Grand Casinos invigorate continued interest in
an employee health program by producing a video featuring the vibrant
look of casinos with messages from fellow employees detailing how the
program helped lead to improvements in their wellness.
While PR agencies’ products have clearly become more visual, it’s still
an open question as to whether it makes business sense for an agency to
bring production facilities in-house.
CPRF president Jack Bergen says that when he managed H&K’s New York
office in the late 1980s, its graphic and video production units chalked
up dollars 3 million in fees, but it was still hard to make a profit
because they had to compete with independent companies. H&K’s agency
competitors, obviously, didn’t want to give it any business.
Still, Bergen sees value in an agency having such an operation because
it helps PR pros to think in more visual and conceptual terms. Public
Strategies’ Yates concurs, because in an era of information overload ’PR
firms are being pushed to be more creative and to think up new ways that
will have their client’s messages be interesting.’ And another good
reason is the fact that quicker responses have to be done in all facets
’The end of the news cycle does not exist anymore,’ says Yates.
Adds David Lowey, senior vice president and director of multimedia at
Fleishman-Hillard, ’More clients expect an integrated design or
interactive solution to be part of the solution we offer.’
Not all agree that creative production must be done in-house. If the
work is not constant, an agency can be saddled with unproductive
And the flip side of a consistent look is sameness; Brian Gaudet, who
directs creative and strategic development for Manning, Selvage & Lee’s
Washington office, says that in the early 1990s creeping concern about a
’Manning look’ led to taking its creative design outside.
Clearly, many other agencies are moving in the opposite direction.
But the creative revolution is only starting, according to Larry Weber,
chairman and CEO of Weber PR Worldwide. Weber says this is so because
the technology revolution is moving into the era of convergence when TV,
audio and the Internet all come together. He foresees a coming era of
’customized visual communications’ that is also highly interactive. He
expects new departments such as Webcasting, production and creative will
soon be more present in PR firms.
Nancy Ruscheinski, who heads Edelman’s creative solutions department,
notes that the interactive, graphics and video units under her charge
are already collaborating often.
So will PR agencies one day come to resemble advertising agencies?
FH’s Lowey, an ad agency veteran, says they will look neither like ad
agencies nor like today’s PR agencies: ’The rules have fundamentally
changed, and everyone is fighting to own the new landscape.’
THE BIG AGENCIES: CREATIVE IN THE HOUSE
The creative revolution is most obvious in PR’s biggest agencies.
- Ogilvy PR Worldwide has a 40-person creative operation in Washington,
- Porter Novelli has an 18-person creative and advertising staff in
Washington, plus the agency recently acquired the public affairs,
advertising and PR firm Goddard Claussen.
- BSMG Worldwide’s Bozell/Eskew Advertising unit has a 22-person staff,
and there is talk within the agency about setting up a separate division
to handle PR-oriented work such as VNRs, ANRs and print collateral.
- Fleishman-Hillard’s design group numbered just 12 people in 1990 and
30 in 1995. Today it has over 70 people with offices in four US
The agency plans to open a creative office in Hong Kong this summer and
to develop a ’presence’ in Europe within a year.
- Nancy Ruscheinski, the Edelman executive vice president and general
manager who heads the agency’s creative solutions department, estimates
that its Interactive Solutions, Design Communications and Edelman
Productions units represent 50 people and dollars 7 million in revenue.
Edelman subsidiary StrategyOne has been producing issue advertising for
the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Australian telecom
- Scott Wallace, who chairs Burson-Marsteller’s advertising/creative
practice, estimates its staff numbers 80 employees, including
resurrected Marsteller Advertising, Burson-Marsteller Productions and a
Web design unit called Targeted Portals and Sites.
- Torie Clarke, general manager of Hill & Knowlton’s Washington, DC
presence, wants to increase her office’s creative abilities beyond just
a limited graphics capability. ’Now we want to be out there actually
doing the full-blown creative,’ Clarke says. ’We’re moving in the
direction of more and more having the capabilities in-house.’