The Agency Business: When PR firms turn to advertising to promote their services

Whether a nascent agency or one that's been around the block, there are several strategies that PR firms should consider before opening their wallets and hitting the airwaves.

Whether a nascent agency or one that's been around the block, there are several strategies that PR firms should consider before opening their wallets and hitting the airwaves.

To advertise or not to advertise, that is the question.

While many PR firms have never even considered buying ad space for self-promotion, others swear it is a vital way to attain brand recognition and gain clients.

If a firm decides to go down the advertising path, the question then becomes what type of medium to advertise in and how often. While some agencies prefer to advertise only during their incipient stages, others choose to advertise for the long term.

Dan Pinger is part of the latter camp. Head of an eponymous firm in Cincinnati, Pinger has run a 30-second radio spot on the local NPR affiliate during the same time slot for the past 16 years. The expenditure is $12,000 annually.

While Pinger admits that the station accounts for only 1% or 2% of the city's overall radio market, he says the message does reach his target audience of corporate executives. The ads air only twice a week during Morning Edition, but "people think they hear it every day," Pinger says.

Jenny Lawhorn, an NPR senior media relations manager, adds that many companies, including PR firms such as Fleishman-Hillard, underwrite the network's national programs.

Perhaps the most important aspect of an ad is to make it stand out against those from other firms, notes Doug Spong, managing partner of Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch Spong (CLS), which spends between $90,000 and $100,000 per year on advertising.

When CLS was developing a series of ads, Spong and his creative team had a conference room wallpapered with efforts from other PR firms. The point was to avoid making CLS ads look like any other out there, as Spong eschews ads "with globes or obscure art."

"I don't want to reach the world," he says. "I target a specific audience" with campaigns that have an attitude.

One of those ads with attitude gets at many clients' concerns that a PR firm's team may lack experience. The tagline: "You signed on with the Doberman pitch team only to find yourself working with a Chihuahua."

Clients, says Steve Cody, managing partner of New York-based Peppercom, are often anxious that an agency isn't knowledgeable about their industry, so it's important to get across in an ad that a firm will meet a client's needs. "The number-one issue keeping clients up at night is [the concern] that PR firms don't understand their business," Cody adds.

Some PR firms, however, don't see the value of advertising, even if at some point they've gone down that route.

For a few years, New York-based Trylon Communications ran an ad in the New York Observer without charge because the agency had been doing work for the publication. But Trylon president Lloyd Trufelman reports that the ads weren't terribly effective despite running for quite some time.

"We had [the ad] for a number of years, and [with enough] frequency to get it into people's heads and remembered," Trufelman says.

It might make sense to routinely run an ad in a business or trade publication, but Trufelman cautions that an agency would probably need a sizeable advertising budget to do so.

The decision to advertise is also determined by the position of an agency in its particular market, which might change from year to year, according to Michael Petruzzello, managing partner at Qorvis Communications in Washington, DC.

The 5-year-old firm ran a deliberate ad campaign early in its history to raise awareness in industry publications and even a few public policy magazines, such as The Weekly Standard. Over the years, the ads dwindled as Qorvis moved to a more opportunistic ad strategy, Petruzzello said. But given the agency's recent growth, Qorvis again has its eye on a new advertising approach, scheduled to roll out mid-year.

The real test of whether advertising makes sense is often from feedback from clients and even other firms.

Spong recounted one story of a person in Pennsylvania who saw one of the CLS ads, ripped it out, and hung it in her cubicle. It wasn't until some time after her company had hired CLS that the woman realized the ad was for the agency.

"She's buying what we're selling," says Spong.


Advertising pointers

  • Create ads that are unique - even a bit edgy - and stand out from those of other firms

  • Advertising can help to achieve brand recognition

  • In order to resonate with potential clients, frequency is often key

  • Ads should demonstrate that the agency understands a client's needs

  • A large advertising budget may be necessary to achieve desired results

  • Ads are only one part of the marketing mix. You can promote an agency in other ways

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