Sorrell Twitter comment highlights networks' conundrum

WPP head honcho Martin Sorrell has been stirring the pot again this week by repeating his comments about Twitter being a "PR medium," not an advertising one.

WPP head honcho Martin Sorrell has been stirring the pot again this week by repeating his comments about Twitter being a “PR medium,” not an advertising one.

If you are a PRWeek reader you'll be saying “what's wrong with that?,” but am I the only one who detects some barely concealed disdain for the term “PR” beneath that bald statement? Sorrell also stated that Facebook is more of a branding than an advertising platform, but more of that later.

(By the way, it is interesting that when even octogenarian Rupert Murdoch has signed on to Twitter, a communications giant such as Sorrell has not.)

All agency network bosses are wrestling with the fact that their marketing services disciplines – which all have separate revenue lines and profit centers – are merging into the same space, fueled by digital and social media. Clients still want the biggest and best ideas but, as Target CMO Jeff Jones told PRWeek in our recent Marketing Issue, they aren't so bothered where they come from. And they expect agencies to truly collaborate, not just pay lip service to it and continue operating in competitive silos.

But the fact is that Sorrell's WPP, and the other major networks IPG, Omnicom, and Publicis, still make a lot more money out of advertising and media planning than they do out of PR. So despite Sorrell's professed admiration for PR in a piece he penned for PRWeek in December 2011, his natural business instincts still push him in the direction of advertising and media.

In that piece, he notably talked about PR being a vehicle for integration but also for cost savings. He also repeated his assertion – wrong in my view – that social media is the modern form of letter writing. It's so much more than that, and savvy communicators understand that. Smart PR agencies are managing hundreds of Facebook communities for their clients that stimulate copious brand sharing experiences and word-of-mouth interactions.

Of course, the fact that WPP's PR and public affairs revenues actually fell 1.1% year over year in 2012 won't make Sorrell feel better-disposed toward the discipline, and his legendary impatience is no doubt being felt at the network's PR giants Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Burson-Marsteller, and Ogilvy PR as we speak.

On the platform side, and returning to Facebook, the social network has been quick to point out that its advertising units are indeed as effective, or even more so, than other ad formats such as TV. And it has made a big push to incorporate more advertising within its newsfeeds, which, frankly, annoys most Facebook users. But, like the agency networks, they also have to make money.

However, none of this is necessarily in the best interests of clients and their drive to marketing effectiveness, which at the end of the day is the most important factor for them and, by extension, the agencies and media owners that service them or rely on them to thrive.

Coca-Cola further stirred the pot this week when one of its senior marketers said online buzz around its brand wasn't translating into short-term sales as well as online display ads, which were tracking on par with TV ads. Coke later backtracked from this and emphasized the danger in taking buzz in isolation from other aspects of social media such as sharing and video.

Certainly paid media, or advertising, is not dead, and the ‘P' in the PESO mix (paid, earned, shared, owned) is still significant. But it is just that now: part of the mix, not the automatic leader.

It's a complicated equation that marketers and their agencies are still figuring out. But the opportunities are endless and exciting, and the so-called “PR medium” contains so many more possibilities than, for example, a paid-for ad that users busily fast forward through on their DVR, or a pre-roll ad on YouTube that delays users from getting to the content they really desire.

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