Agency innovators share their views

In this Web-exclusive piece, these five agency innovators (click here for full profiles) share additional thoughts on innovation and its importance in the PR industry.

In this Web-exclusive piece, these five agency innovators (click here for full profiles) share additional thoughts on innovation and its importance in the PR industry.

Agency Innovators

Todd Defren,principal, Shift Communications

Judith Harrison, VP of HR for Constituency Management Group

Paul Rand, president and CEO, Zocalo Group 

Sabrina Horn, president, The Horn Group

Peter Verrengia, president and senior partner, Communications Consulting Worldwide, Fleishman-Hillard

PRWeek: What companies do you think really demonstrate innovation from a communications standpoint? Why?

Todd Defren: This isn’t because they don’t exist, but I don’t really have any examples off the top of my head. I see so many examples of missed opportunities that I focus on because, in my role, part of my job is to educate both clients and staff about how things could be done better.

This is an example of a missed opportunity: if you do a search on BMW, in the top Google search results is the Autoblog –which is a pretty well-read and influential blog. There is a forum on the Auto Blog just for people who want to talk about just BMWs, and they talk about BMWs every single day. For every 15 comments there are probably 1500 readers – just lurking and not posting. What a missed opportunity for BMW who had no one there to discuss, interact, and participate with these people who are clearly advocates for the brand. There are millions of examples where companies are missing that kind of opportunity.

Judith Harrison: The American Legacy Foundation has impressed me with its ability to connect with its target audience through its Truth campaign to prevent youth smoking. Their use of advertising, grassroots, and online marketing communicates with the youth audience in pitch-perfect tone and gives them the opportunity to own and spread the message. It has been cited repeatedly by young people I've interviewed as a great example of communications work.

Sabrina Horn: One is RightMedia – who is still a client of ours – but we're not doing very much work for them because they were bought by Yahoo. The second example is a venture capital firm, which traditionally you think is a more conservative, traditional entity.  They are here in New York called Union Square Ventures.  And they invest in predominantly Internet companies, and their Web site is a blog site. They actually advise their portfolio companies that they've invested in to not do any traditional PR at all – unless there is an acquisition and an attorney makes them write a press release.  They recommend that all their portfolio companies do their marketing in the blogosphere and the Internet – through any medium other than traditional PR.   That's really because they think that's the way things are going.

Paul Rand: One of the companies would be [Zocalo client] Beam Global Spirits and Wine. They've actually taken on a mission to be a company of brands people talk about. That they're actively going out of their way to go forward with a statement like that is compelling, and it's shaping the way the entire company goes to market. But it's not just about a marketing campaign. It's about the complete and total experience a consumer has with the Beam brands.

Peter Verrengia: I think that the companies that are most innovative today are the ones that are addressing very new territory. Their approach to communications isn’t just promotional. They’re describing a need and how they fit that need.

In biotech, in Web 2.0 companies, in a number of technology companies, there’s a constant need to define the problem you’re solving in concrete terms and then to find a solution. Sometimes the most innovative companies are not the most clever at packaging and entertaining. The innovation is helping people understand complex issues like global warming or why you should save for retirement, [etc].

So I think sometimes it’s more categories than companies because some of the most complicated subjects require the most innovative approaches in order to stimulate the market.

PRWeek: What do you see as the challenges for the PR industry to be innovative? Is there something in particular that’s holding it back?

Defren: I wouldn’t want to give the PR industry no credit for not being innovative.  I’d like to think our agency is a little more innovative than most, but a lot of guys and gals are embracing this as much as they can. I think one of the bigger challenges I’ve identified is it’s tough for anyone who’s been at a PR firm for any more than three years, even, to think about this as an opportunity to engage with anyone but the mainstream media. 

Harrison: Forward-thinking agencies are embracing the challenges of innovation. We're adapting to consumer connectivity, the fragmenting of audiences, the multiplication of communications platforms, the growth of online influentials, and the atomization of media to help our clients thrive in an era of rapid change and unprecedented stakeholder demand for transparency and choice.

Horn: Change is hard. It is risky to bring on-board services, people, and new business models and to try and integrate it into an existing structure to create a new company, to evolve the business. It's risky because some clients may not want that. Sometimes it is easier to stick with what you have, but more and more I think that is a losing proposition – especially in the tech sector. Our clients love to know that they can get most of their marketing communications needs done with one agency rather than having to go to three or four of them. It may take you awhile to earn their trust.  They may start out with PR, and then say, "Maybe you can refresh our Web site," and then that leads to a redesign.  And then that leads to maybe an advertising campaign.  It's not like they are going to sign up for everything right away.

Rand: This may or may not be a popular answer: There's no denying that TV commercials are losing their effectiveness, so ad agencies and other marketers are being forced to change, forced to find different revenue streams. [Conversely], in today's market, many PR agencies are finding that the market is coming to them — so they think they're doing everything right. But like ad agencies, if PR agencies don't evolve, they'll find that the market has moved beyond them.

Verrengia: One challenge is the definition of our role both inside the industry and by people who are users of PR services who are outside our industry. Sometimes because of the lack of the ability to measure our impact on the bottom line, we’re treated as optional or something nice to have. That’s a huge challenge, but one we’re overcoming as the need for communications to affect business outcomes grows.

The second challenge is the increased demand for speed and transparency in the information that organizations provide both to their employees and outside audiences. This creates friction between people who manage risk in organizations and people who are trying to drive opportunity. PR has always operated at that intersection, but today that demand is higher and we have to make a more effective stronger case for our recommendations.

Third, a lot of PR people don’t necessarily have the background or the mindset to allow themselves to take part in a management-level discussion that treats communications opportunities as business decisions. This is something that anyone can learn to do with some effort. It’s really a question of seeing yourself as part of the business of an organization, not as a discipline that stands one step removed from the center of what drives organization results. [T]hat’s an attitude problem and that’s an experience problem.

PRWeek: Who do you consider to be innovative in the PR agency world? Why?

Defren: Edelman. But that’s also the firm I look to the most for screwing things up. When I recently gave a presentation to my staff and I talked about some of the biggest faux paux in blogger relations so far – every single one was an Edelman one. And yet you need to give them credit: the reason they are screwing up so much is because they are trying so much. And I respect that more than I worry about the bungles because they’ll get it right – they’re smart people. I’d rather screw up like an Edelman and get better rather than keep taking the safe approach.

Horn: I think a lot of agencies are talking about doing this but aren't really doing it yet. And it's not easy – how do you add those capabilities? Do you buy another firm?  Do you hire a couple of people and then grow a function organically? How do you integrate those new services with public relations and have integrated account teams? How do you train those people? We've been doing it now for three, going on four years. As a medium-sized firm, I don't know of any other agency that is doing what we're doing at the level that we are. That said, I know there are several larger agencies – but I don't know what the really have if you peel back the onion. But I know there are definitely those capabilities in larger agencies like Fleishman, or I presume within Edelman. I just don't know what they are so I'm not in a position to admire them. Like I said, I still think it's really early and whenever I go to these conferences or PR forums everybody is talking about it but they're not necessarily doing it.

Rand: Everybody has the potential of being an innovator. You just have to take the time to step back from the day-to-day grind and think about what's not being done as well as it could be.

Specifically, Ray Kotcher, CEO at Ketchum. He's very embracing of change, aggressively encourages innovation. He's made a formal corporate commitment to harness change.

Other than Ketchum, Waggener Edstrom is working hard at innovation.  And John Bell [head of the global 360° digital influence team] at Ogilvy PR is bringing  that organization forward, as is Idil Cakim [VP interactive media] at GolinHarris …  Innovative efforts tend to focus in on a handful of people that pull the rest of the organization along.

Verrengia: Really it’s the problems that stimulate innovation. If you look at companies that are in mobile marketing that are creating virtual communities, those are innovations that are forcing PR into new relationships with audiences. Although I think there are people who are really skillful in the PR world, I think the innovations that are affecting it most are happening outside of [the industry].






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