EDITORIAL: PR must seize opportunity to shine as holding companies increase support of collaboration

Bob Feldman, CEO of GCI Group, participated in a panel discussion on "converging communications," during New York's Advertising Week.

Bob Feldman, CEO of GCI Group, participated in a panel discussion on "converging communications," during New York's Advertising Week.

He called for holding companies to increase training of people on the different marketing disciplines. "There's a big step between collaboration and integration," he said.

Feldman, and other PR leaders in the holding-company matrix, should be emboldened to tell their holding companies what is needed to make real integration happen for clients and help lead the strategic charge.

The model is still evolving. Clients want it. In a recent example of how the picture has changed, much coverage of WPP's acquisition of Grey - including GCI - focused on how the purchase wasn't thwarted by mega-clients Procter & Gamble (Grey) or Unilever (WPP). Both marketers have seemingly accepted that firewalls can work and, of course, continued consolidation within marketing makes rigid conflict policies tougher to sustain.

But also, as many noted, conflict worries may prevent these companies from focusing on what talent is truly able to move products, specifically because the rewards of integration are now perceived as that much greater.

Holding companies are increasingly embracing the dual job of guarding independent brands and encouraging collaboration. WPP espouses the virtues of independence for the individual brands, while still pulling together the kind of "best-of-class" pitches that resulted in wins of Pfizer's cardiovascular line - an account led by Cohn & Wolfe - and the global HSBC business, in a similar holding-company run-off (but one that did not include PR).

Other holding companies have internal arms to foster integration. Interpublic's own laboratory of collaboration is its Constituency Management Group, headed by Weber Shandwick CEO Harris Diamond, and Omnicom's Diversified Agency Services has a range of offerings headed by Tom Harrison.

Relatively few clients are asking for a best-of-class pitch. Much of the integration strategy is based on growing business and the bottom line by leveraging other disciplines on existing accounts, not pitching. But Diamond says the new business trend is becoming more pervasive, creating a unique opportunity for PR, because of its need to harness the full range of marketing skill sets to reach every possible audience and the likelihood of its being at the center of those audiences.

Moreover, PR firms delve in a unique way into all of a marketer's core functions - including corporate, finance, marketing, legal, HR, and sales. PR listens and advises, communicates externally and internally, and is uniquely equipped to understand the needs of brands. That access and comprehensive understanding of a client's holistic needs is exactly what will help holding companies refine and innovate their offerings and teams, to the benefit of everyone.

It is no mistake that PR leaders like WPP's EVP Howard Paster and Diamond already hold significant holding-company positions to drive integration. But Feldman and other PR agency leaders have an important role to play in helping take this evolution to the next level.

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