Editors' Choice 2014: time to go to work

Welcome to 2014, one of WPP boss Martin Sorrell's beloved mini-quadrennial years with its major global events such as the Winter Olympics in Sochi and soccer World Cup in Brazil, but no US presidential election to elevate it to "maxi" status.

Welcome to 2014, one of WPP boss Martin Sorrell's beloved mini-quadrennial years with its major global events such as the Winter Olympics in Sochi and soccer World Cup in Brazil, but no US presidential election to elevate it to “maxi” status.

However, in his public pronouncements Sorrell has reined in expectations for 2014, tempering predictions to “tough, but manageable” (AdAge) from the “come out of the traps” (The Drum) he envisaged this time last year.

Indeed, the boost supplied by mini- and maxi-quadrennial effects seems to be waning in significance. In his review of 2012, Sorrell noted that, “The three maxi-quadrennial events… the UEFA Football Championships in Central and Eastern Europe, the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in London, and… the US presidential elections in November, did underpin industry growth, but not… as much as was thought, with client money being switched from existing budgets, particularly in the cases of the UEFA Championships and Olympics.”

Nevertheless, the aforementioned sporting bonanzas and the US mid-term congressional elections will provide some stimuli to the economy and the marcomms sector in 2014, though they will be counterbalanced by Sorrell's “gray swans”: the eurozone, Middle East turmoil, BRIC economy fallout, and US deficit.

This year will likely also feature the biggest agency deal in marketing history, the Omnicom/Publicis merger, which looks set to be rubberstamped in Q2. It's a fascinating tie-up that has many repercussions, not least for the PR sector, though clearly that only represents a fraction of the total businesses in a new mega-network worth about $23 billion in annual revenues.

At the moment Sorrell is concentrating on exploiting any fallout from OmniPub clients dissatisfied by potential conflicts and the talent drain he says will result from eyes being taken off the creative ball during the merger. Clients tend to be silent assassins in this respect, so even if publicly they are reserving judgment, privately some will wield the axe swiftly and ruthlessly should they feel it necessary.

OmniPub and further agency consolidation will certainly be buzzwords in 2014. Looking through PRWeek's Editors' Choice features of the last three years, several other keywords keep popping up as overarching themes in the communications sector, equally applicable to agencies and clients: talent, integration, content, data, global, transparency, convergence, engagement, ethics, diversity, marketing, social media, and the C-suite.

These themes are all big topics in their own right. And none of them is going away in 2014. But, without implying that the industry has cracked the code, there's a sense these factors are now table stakes in a game where the ante has upped considerably.

This is presumably why most major PR agencies have rebranded in recent times, the latest being Edelman with its ‘Show Up Differently' push. FleishmanHillard touts ‘The Power of True'; Weber Shandwick is ‘Engaging, Always'; and Ketchum vows to ‘Break Through'. As their continuing poor financial results showed in 2013, the WPP PR shops – Burson-Marsteller, Hill+Knowlton, and Ogilvy – seem to be having a harder time clearly defining their offer to clients.

Each agency will tell you their offers are completely unique and groundbreaking, but essentially they are all positioning themselves as senior counselors increasingly looking to tell clients' stories and engage audiences across all elements of the PESO media mix – with the aspiration of taking a lead role wherever possible.

Client structures are also evolving to address the new place of communications within their organizations. PR firms are now as likely to be dealing with the CMO, chief digital officer, CEO, brand manager, or sales or customer service functions as they are the chief communications officer: smart comms practice is adding value in a diverse range of areas.

If 2010 was a year of coming out of recession; 2011 of engaging the C-suite and finding that seat at the table; 2012 of embracing authenticity and transparency; 2013 of leveraging the power of content; 2014 will be about getting down to business.

All those factors will come together as the communications profession tries to cement its position as a provider of genuine measurable return on investment for brands, corporations, and organizations. It will be a year of really getting down to business, rather than stunning growth - and that will happen regardless of any short-term effects of the mini-quadrennial year.

Other trends, companies, and people to look out for in 2014:

Several companies, including Visa, Cigna, P&G, FedEx, Allstate, and SAP, have done away with the CCO position or merged it with marketing. This is all well and good as long as an awareness of, and commitment to, corporate reputation and crisis management are not dispensed with in the process. Social media has crunched marketing and communications together and a new combined role of CMCO is evolving.

There are several fascinating developments in media to watch in 2014, as Jeff Bezos' ownership of The Washington Post takes effect; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar teams up with NSA whistleblower Glenn Greenwald in a $250 million venture under the First Look Media umbrella; Twitter founder Evan Williams' publishing platform Medium evolves; Arianna Huffington's World Post website fires up; and Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher fly the AllThingsD/Wall Street Journal nest and set up their own tech venture called Re/code – with the former AllThingsD site becoming WSJ.D.

The focus will move from just doing branded content to ensuring real return on investment from such content. Content creators are a ubiquitous presence at brands and agencies – they must now prove their genuine effectiveness in terms of boosting brands and businesses.

Social has changed the game, producing tectonic shifts in the way individuals, brands, and companies communicate, interact, and engage. As our sister brand The Hub regularly documents, each social channel is continually changing the way they operate and their terms and conditions. For smart communicators and marketers, it is becoming a full-time job to keep up with these changes and adapt programs and strategies accordingly.

Business still has a very bad reputation, despite the rise of cause marketing, CSR initiatives, and the realization of the importance of “doing good” being “good business.” A strong communications influence in the C-suite is essential if business and brands are to move the needle from simply posturing to genuine authenticity.

Target and Snapchat are just two of the latest in a long line of companies and organizations affected by security breaches. Target's data breach affected 70 million customers, pretty much ruined its holiday shopping strategy for 2013, and left a lingering legacy of concern amongst its customers, or guests as the retailer prefers to call them. Every single brand and corporation has to have a proactive and preemptive communications strategy in place to deal with such increasingly common security breaches.

It's time for the tech behemoths to put something back, reach out beyond their campuses, and show they are a real part of the community in the Bay Area and not just sucking the lifeblood out of the region in pursuit of insular economic growth.

Midsized integrated agencies such as Olson, Fahlgren Mortine, and Kwittken prospered in 2013 and will continue to thrive in the newly converged and creative marketing services environment of 2014.

Dan Bartlett made the switch from agency life at Hill+Knowlton Strategies to replace Leslie Dach in the top comms role at retail giant Walmart. With his family settled in Bentonville he will look to really make his mark in 2014 in one of the highest-profile roles in PR.

Highly rated Emily White moved from Facebook/Instagram to become Snapchat's COO, leading to suggestions she is set to “do a Sheryl Sandberg” at the mobile video social network.

Nicki Briggs did a fine job at Chobani before becoming a victim of internal politics at the fast-growing yogurt producer and it will be interesting to see where she lands for her next adventure.

Brian Specht at Olson Engage is leading great growth at the integrated shop, including some noteworthy global assignments for McDonald's.

Additional input by members of the PRWeek editorial team.

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