Working with ad agencies: Working for a common goal - and budget

Whether it's by choice or chance, PR firms frequently work with ad agencies to support integrated marketing campaigns.

Whether it's by choice or chance, PR firms frequently work with ad agencies to support integrated marketing campaigns.

When it comes to advertising and PR working together, in an optimal situation, both parties keep the clients' interests foremost in their minds, and all decisions - including how to divide budgets and whose ideas will be implemented - are based solely on what will generate maximum benefits. But sometimes, power struggles and a lack of understanding about what each side brings to the mix undermines the collaboration's effectiveness.

In order to work together efficiently and effectively, PR pros must clearly demonstrate their value to ad agencies, including the expected benefits and cost-effectiveness of their initiatives.

"The best plan is to have equal partners working towards the same goal, but that happens too infrequently," says Bob Seltzer, leader of the marketing practice at Ruder Finn. "Everyone understands that integration is smarter than isolation, but the desire to integrate hits the wall when one discipline has to fight the other for what they want."

Such tussles, not surprisingly, often involve money. While clients frequently allocate budgets for marketing campaigns, ad agencies can also be assigned to divvy up funds. And that often creates a difficult environment as PR battles for what it considers to be its fair share.

"Ad agencies do not like sharing their budgets with PR people and they'll try to get away with spending as little on PR as possible," says Colette Phillips, president of Boston-based Colette Phillips Communications. "PR firms must go back to the client for assistance if they can't come to a reasonable agreement with advertising. Having the two duke it out doesn't make for a good start in a relationship."

Resources usually are more forthcoming when ad agencies understand the payback from PR activities. PR firms, thus, should detail their worth in language that advertising will best understand, Phillips says.

An effective technique is to quantify the benefits from a successful initiative. Phillips, for instance, recently assisted a client in garnering a full-page interview in a local magazine. It then informed the ad agency that a comparable four-color ad in the publication would have cost $10,000. While equivalent ad value is a measure much debated within PR circles, it clearly resonates with ad agencies.

PR firms should also equate the print, radio, or TV coverage a client receives to the free "bonus ads" agencies often get when buying spots. "Because ad agencies understand the concept of brand enhancing, PR firms must demonstrate how their activities also expand brand awareness with consumers," Phillips notes.

The distribution of one-page information bulletins to ad agencies at the start of a relationship is another effective way PR firms can illustrate their capabilities, she adds. The memos can spell out how PR will enhance the campaign and can include the planned strategies and the rationale behind each method.

Such briefs can support the key function of educating ad agencies on PR firms' inner workings. Jane Shapiro, SVP and partner at Fleishman-Hillard Canada, says lunch meetings or other gatherings where PR firms can give ad agency staffers presentations on what PR brings to the table are also beneficial.

"Ad agency folks frequently don't understand what communications does," she notes. "Their notion of PR is pretty vague."

While PR and ad agency staffers of different ranks will collaborate during a project, it is imperative that a senior-level PR pro is present during discussions that center on strategy and budgeting to ensure that PR's voice is heard.

Not only do clients tend to look to the most senior people for ideas, but high-level ad managers - through the sheer strength of their personalities - will often overwhelm junior or mid-level PR staffers at meetings, says Rick French, president and CEO of Raleigh, NC-based French/West/Vaughan.

"It is important to understand who is going to participate and guide the strategies in meetings so that you can include people of relatively equal skill sets," French adds. "They then can talk back and forth in constructive and collaborative ways without any intimidation."

Because ad agencies are often more receptive to ideas from individuals who comprehend advertising and the key issues facing practitioners, PR staffers should prepare for meetings by reading ad-industry trade titles and being ready to ask questions during discussions, Seltzer notes.

In addition to improving the relationship, such behavior helps ensure that the most optimal measures are incorporated into campaigns. In the long run, that best serves the client, he says.

"It's great if I can say, 'This ought to be a promotions group thing' or 'This needs to start with direct mail before you go with ads,'" Seltzer adds. "I can't do that by guessing. I can't only know PR and decide that PR should only go first. If I don't know what everyone else can do, I'm just protecting my turf."

Perhaps the only certainty that PR firms can expect from working with ad agencies is that each situation will present its own set of issues. Budget and power struggles, for instance, can exist among parties that are owned by the same holding company, as well as when independent organizations are collaborating.

And even when ad agency executives preach the value of PR to their staffers, some individuals will still likely treat the PR firm as their enemy.

Such tensions are often eased when parties operate without concern over who gets ultimate credit or acclaim for an idea or result, says Doug Spong, managing partner at Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch Spong.

"You have to do what's best for the client and not necessarily what's best for the individual partner," he adds. "That should be the guiding principle."

Technique tips

Do work at putting the ego aside when developing strategies and let the best ideas win

Do use the language and examples that ad agencies will best understand when talking about the value of a PR initiative

Do learn as much as possible about the inner workings of the ad agency and developments in the advertising sector

Don't be afraid to approach the client in order to resolve disagreements over the budget and other important matters

Don't have lower-level staffers represent the PR firm at meetings involving clients and senior-level ad agency personnel

Don't come into a relationship with the idea that PR is the answer to everything

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