PR firms at a make-or-break moment on content creation

The pressure is on for agencies, large and small, to get content creation right - and right now.

The must-have capability for marketing providers is no longer social media. Ask executives from PR agencies and Fortune 500 brands, and they’ll say proficiency with Facebook and Twitter has been surpassed by a need for content-creation chops.

Communications firms have a number of options for bolstering their content-creation prowess, such as building it out via acquisitions, creating divisions, or intensely training staff.

Last week, Publicis Groupe said it will acquire Relaxnews, a press and content agency based in Paris, for about $17.1 million. W2O Group also bought ARC2 Communications & Media, a Los Angeles-based boutique, last Wednesday in a deal that W2O chairman and CEO Jim Weiss says will bolster the network’s content prowess.

In January, FleishmanHillard scaled out its content-marketing services globally by launching FH ContentWorks at CES. FH ContentWorks merged Freshwire, a content strategy and creation service operated by Fleishman since its acquisition in late 2012, with the agency’s existing content services.

Rob Flaherty, president and CEO of Ketchum, says "content creation is very central to where PR is going. Digital and social created that opening."

"The smart firms aren’t pretending they can be [great at] every aspect of integrated marketing because that’s a way of being mediocre at a few things rather than really good," adds Flaherty. "At the same time, there is a great deal of unclaimed real estate," he explains. "If we do content creation well – collectively or as individual agencies – we can play a larger role for our clients." 

Chris Perry, president of digital at Weber Shandwick and leader of the agency’s two-year-old Mediaco content unit, says client demand has created a sense of urgency around the content space, including for mobile.

"This isn’t like some of the social media budgets early on when you could dip your toes and experiment. We’re dealing with big money here, and so it’s a higher stakes game that firms really need to get into – and get right," says Perry.

Yet he also warns that "there is a major risk of oversimplifying it."

"Before you can even get into the editorial planning and production, the two pieces that are typically the basis of content specialist agencies," Perry continues, firms need to back up their services with robust analytics. Agencies should also be able to navigate IT issues and client cultures, given that many enterprises are struggling with a content-driven order.

"I don’t see buying a content shop as a panacea," he adds. "This is much deeper water than what we experienced with the first wave of digital and even social."

Shawn Amos, chief innovation officer of the Americas for FH ContentWorks and Freshwire founder, says he has seen content creation go from being a curiosity among clients to a necessity. One reason why is that it’s tough for them to do it themselves.

"They had also been doing it to some degree on their own through internal hires and planning, but when it comes to scaling, companies are realizing it is almost impossible to do internally," he says.

"Clearly the marketplace sees the gold rush, and now there are Silicon [Valley]-backed players and traditional marketing players trying to figure out how to be in that space in a credible way," explains Amos. "Acquisitions are one way to do that, and the most interesting right now are technology-based because they bring platform solutions, which are a part of the puzzle."

Yet he adds that brands can become too reliant on platforms, which are far from a silver bullet by themselves.

"But there may be a bit of an over-reliance on tech, because platforms alone are not the solution, you also need the human touch," says Amos. "I do think, and am hopeful, that we will see interesting mergers that will create a full-service content offering."

Major brands say they are constantly re-examining the process by which they produce and distribute content.

Ford Motor Company has had an in-house "content factory" since 2008 staffed by writers, graphic designers, photographers, and social media experts. Yet by year end, the Ford Content Factory will be structured and operate differently than it does now, says Sara Tatchio, manager of global integrated communications for the automaker.

"We’re constantly evolving to meet the needs of our business and deliver information to people where and how they want to get it," she explains of the changes being made. She declined to elaborate further on them. 

Tatchio also believes the content pie can be shared by PR and marketing as well as outside partners, noting Ford has worked with other third parties on branded content.

"Different people bring different strengths, and we’ve found determining those strengths is the most important consideration when deciding who is best to communicate a particular story for us," Tatchio tells PRWeek. "When you decide what the important stories are, you might find one is much more suited to earned media, another a marketing partnership, and others both of those areas."

"Personally, I don’t know that there will ever be a model that will work across the board," she notes. "It is about being thoughtful about what you’re doing and aligning it with your own business goals."

So which marketing discipline will come out on top? PR agency leaders gave us their 2 cents.

Flaherty says a successful model should incorporate three areas: Some acquisitions of companies specializing in content creation; acquisition of talent such as former journalists; and training existing staff, the last of which his firm has focused on.

"It is an incredibly important moment in PR, and you’re not going to get through this transformation by throwing everyone out and bringing in all new talent, or keeping all the talent you had before and supplementing it somewhat with a 10% boost of new content and creative talent," says Flaherty. "It requires a combination and extensive education at scale democratizes and makes it available to everyone in the agency, so that it is not isolated in one unit."

Ketchum also has StoryWorks, a creative newsroom with social listening, research and insights, account planners, creative directors, and content producers in a single room.

"We’re putting these in all of our major offices around the world," says Flaherty. "It is great for clients to be able to see what it looks like to do this kind of real-time marketing and content."

Edelman, meanwhile, does not have a specific content-creation entity, and has chosen to spread the expertise across offices. Steve Rubel, chief content strategist at Edelman, says the firm is "hesitant to devote a full department to content when it should be democratized and in a small way be part of everyone’s job."

"It works better as a resource that everyone can tap into, that becomes part of the process of everything we do, rather than a separate free-standing P&L that couldn’t compete with other types of programs for client attention," he says. "We’ve set it up as a product, but also a philosophy."

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