PR is set to trump advertising

Controversies over the poor showing of mainstream PR firms in their core Lions categories at Cannes masked concerns from the ad sector about the tide of change moving firmly into the realm of earned media and earned influence.

REI won big at Cannes for #OptOutside on Black Friday - but PR didn't get sufficient credit
REI won big at Cannes for #OptOutside on Black Friday - but PR didn't get sufficient credit

The issues raised at the recent Cannes International Festival of Creativity have wider implications, as they mirror the opportunities and challenges facing the PR profession in the wider world.

Sorry to continually harp on about Cannes, but I still feel there are interesting issues to analyze and I promise I will move on to other topics next week: for now, let’s take one high-profile campaign as an example to illustrate what I’m talking about – REI #OptOutside.

This campaign was awarded in multiple Lions categories and was generally considered to be an excellent piece of work. Agencies taking credit for the activation included San Francisco-based creative shop Venables Bell & Partners and our good friends over at Edelman, through its Seattle office. Other firms involved included Starcom MediaVest through its Chicago office, and a bunch of production companies.

The actual Big Idea originated from the client, REI – which is not unusual. The specialty outdoor retailer and national consumer co-op closed all its 143 stores in the U.S. on Black Friday in 2015, the busiest shopping day of the year. It paid its 12,000 employees to take the day off and asked its members and customers to #OptOutside instead of spending Black Friday indoors.

It was an inspired idea, totally on brand because it not only made employees feel good, but it also encouraged people to get outdoors and use the products REI sells. It was activated expertly by all parties involved.

REI’s VP of communications and public affairs Alex Thompson explained: "The idea to close on Black Friday started here at the co-op as a business decision – a stand against a day and an idea that were out of control – but it took amazing partners, millions of passionate people and the transformative power of the outdoors to create a movement."

Thompson, a former Edelman employee before he went in-house, was quick to emphasize:  "Edelman was a huge part of this from start to finish."

The campaign won nine Lions in total, including the Grand Prix in the Titanium category, one of the last gongs to be handed out in a crazy busy week.

In his 6 A.M. blog, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman confessed to experiencing the full rollercoaster of emotions during the week, from frustration at PR only winning five PR Lions and Edelman only getting a bronze for its work on #OptOutside in the PR Lions, in the Media Relations category, to the highs of the Titanium and other wins for the campaign.

The vagaries of the Cannes system meant Edelman was only named lead agency on one of the nine Lions that REI won, the aforementioned bronze. Ironically, Venables Bell won silver in the PR Lions for the same campaign in the Integrated Campaign Led by PR.

My understanding is that the exact same entry and the exact same film were entered into all of the Lions categories for the #OptOutside campaign – the only difference was who was named lead agency and who was named in a supporting role.

In a previous post, I noted that the PR Lions jurors from "our" sector noted that REI didn’t receive a PR Lions gold or Grand Prix because some of their colleagues from outside the U.S. didn’t fully understand the concept of Black Friday and therefore the context and effectiveness of the #OptOutside idea.

However, if every set of jurors saw the same entry and the same film, I’m curious as to why it was the PR jurors who struggled with this point, and not those folks judging the Titanium, Promo and Activation, Direct, Cyber and other Lions.

As I also pointed out already, the chair of the PR Lions jurors was John Clinton, who works for Edelman as Canada chair and head of North American creative and content and would therefore have been limited in saying too much about #OptOutside in the jury room due to being conflicted.

Like Richard Edelman, I remain amazed that the REI campaign didn’t win a gold Lion, or indeed the Grand Prix, in the PR Lions. I’m also a little stunned that the ad agency could position itself as the lead agency on the entry form for the "Integrated Campaign Led by PR" category of the PR Lions.

You might say all this doesn’t really matter and the main thing is the actual campaign is awarded and related firms can bask in the glory on the back of that, but as WPP CEO Martin Sorrell told PRWeek, there is still a lot of work to be done by the Cannes organizers and by the PR sector to ensure firms are getting proper credit for the work they do.

There's an especial need to look at the new definition of PR employed by the Cannes organization this year, which was disingenuous at best, totally irrelevant at worst, and was among the issues that  persuaded former Lions winners such as Olson PR not to bother entering at all this year.

And this brings me to my wider point, that PR is still being marginalized in the "media relations bucket" and isn’t being given credit for the wider strategic, creative, and business-critical role it plays for brands and clients.

Even in this case, where the client affirmed that the big idea was constructed in-house and the PR agency played a "huge part from start to finish," you still get the feeling it’s the ad agency garnering most of the credit.

This also brings me to the upside of this scenario for the PR sector, and a possible cloud on the horizon for the heavily entrenched ad firms - most of the really big ideas that scored at Cannes could easily be categorized as being led by earned media or earned influence, as the power of the 30-second spot and the importance of traditional paid broadcast media wanes.

And that’s something that, believe it or not, has the advertising agencies looking over their shoulders nervously at the PR folks as they extend their reach into categories beyond the PR Lions, and wondering when PR is going to take over the Cannes party.

So, as Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky told PRWeek, let’s not be totally dispirited by PR’s performance at Cannes and let’s look forward to a brighter future where earned media and the PR sector finally get their just desserts.

In the meantime, the likes of Olson, Edelman, Weber et al can console themselves with competing hard for the real Oscars of the PR world, the PRWeek Awards, the 2017 iteration of which will be launched next week.

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