Are clients asking the right questions?

Coming from a marketing agency background, particularly having worked in a through-the-line agency environment for a number of years, one of the biggest differences that struck me when I made the move to PR was the absence of planning and creative departments in many PR agency structures.

Jonathan Wade is head of digital, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick
Jonathan Wade is head of digital, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick

While not universally true, and increasingly changing, the majority of PR agencies I’ve had exposure to, certainly in Asia, really struggle with the concept of planning and creative as specialist departments and functions.

Why is that? Why is it important for clients to be asking searching questions of their PR agencies with respect to these functions, and why are they generally lacking in PR agencies?

Before I go on, let me define what I mean by creativity for the purpose of this article. I’m referring to creativity as it relates to campaign ideas and online-offline communication executions. I am talking about creativity taking the form of "big ideas," film, graphic design, website design, creative copywriting, and editorial that drives business results. I’m talking about the type of creativity that would be awarded a Cannes Lion. In summary, I’m talking about the definition that advertising agencies and their clients would apply to creativity.

To address the last question first, I think that PR agencies have in the past been guilty of leaving creativity (according to my definition of the term) to the advertising agencies that are perceived to have the luxury of a big white space to place their amazingly creative works of art into. Because the PR industry has, in the past, been reliant on earned media to achieve their communication objectives, they often have had their "executions" created for them by journalists and editors, news anchors, and politicians. The "art" of the execution has often been outside their control.

PR is also a much more reactive rather than proactive agency discipline, with much shorter-turn client requirements. This fact does not lend itself to the often-protracted rumination of the advertising agency planning and creative ideation process, where the creative brief is agonized over for days and the creative ideation process can often feel like it’s going on interminably.

The last key reason is that PR agencies are generally structured along the lines of groups of sector-specific client-team generalists (the "practice structure"), rather than a more specialist division of labor as seen in marketing agencies.

Because of these key reasons, the PR industry (and I’m speaking specifically about Asia here) generally doesn’t have its head around what a "planner" does, or what a "creative director" does. These are alien roles to the Asia-Pacific PR agency environment. I know this to be true, because as a former planner working in a PR agency environment in Asia, I spend a good deal of my time explaining what I did for living before joining my current group of agencies, to staff, clients, and industry colleagues, who often had very bemused expressions on their faces!

While these reasons explain why creative and planning functions have traditionally not existed within a PR agency in the past, they don’t justify the exclusion of these functions now and in the future in Asia.

PR is no longer confined to the earned media space. Increasingly, PR agencies need to operate in the owned and paid media spaces, where visual storytelling craft is paramount to driving engagement and cutting through the sea of content and messages that audiences are exposed to on a daily basis.

While the news cycle is no less demanding – in fact, the necessary speed of reaction has accelerated as digital media has taken hold of the industry – the other agency disciplines have been faced with similar challenges and have found ways of making the traditional creative process more agile and more reactive. In fact, advertising agency executions are increasingly falling into the territory that would have traditionally been considered that of the PR agency: influencer relations and earned media (typically through social media).

Lastly, the simplicity of the PR industry of the past no longer exists. The days when a team focused their attention on their client’s business and a small number of highly influential "message carriers" are gone. Digital media and content marketing have completely disrupted the traditional PR model of communications. Now, the PR agencies need to supplement, and in some cases replace, their teams of sector generalists with subject-matter specialists who have skills and experience in creative planning, in visual storytelling and in media planning and buying.

It’s very obvious, hopefully, why a client should be seeking to clarify whether their PR agency has adapted to these industry changes. At its most fundamental level, the question is related to whether or not the agency is fit-for-purpose in this new world order of PR. Is it equipped to meet the challenges and competition for eyeballs in this post-digital media environment?

And as a final point to underline my argument, take a look at this year’s winners of the Cannes Lion PR awards, which while focused around creativity, are anchored firmly on business outcomes, too. Count how many PR agencies in Asia took home the honors in their own category.

Things are definitely changing. I like to think that the group of agencies that I shepherd from a digital point of view is leading the charge, but there’s a long way to go, for us, and for the industry as a whole. Clients asking the right questions of their PR agencies around planning and creativity will only serve to speed that change for their organization and the industry’s benefit overall.

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