The creative revolution: PR agencies are now executing many of their own creative ideas. But will PR firms start looking more like advertising agencies? Steve Lilienthal reports

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 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,

guess again.

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.’

No more.

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

more creativity.

’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

Harold Burson.

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

advertising/creative practice.

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

heartburn medication.

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


Grasping integration

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

of PR.

’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.’

’Manning look’

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 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.’

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