Why PR needs planners - and what we still have to learn from ad agencies

Once upon a time, PR agencies didn't see the need for planners: whereas ad agencies employed them to ground their creative ideas in genuine insights about their audience, the PR industry took a different route.

PR can learn from the ad industry in its approach to planning, writes Pete Marcus
PR can learn from the ad industry in its approach to planning, writes Pete Marcus

Almost everyone in PR was an all-rounder, mixing idea generation, tactical implementation and account management together.

And anyway, even if agency bosses wanted to invest in planning expertise, planning in the PR world was, by definition, highly restricted.

In those days there was essentially only one route to reach the audience – through the press.

The most sophisticated planning could get was deciding whether a consumer story should be sold into the Sun or the Mirror, or if a business story would be better placed with The Times, Telegraph or FT.

But now the internet age has exploded that old model and opened up incredible new opportunities.

Instead of a couple of handfuls of national papers to choose from, we have hundreds of channels to reach our audience, and fantastic tools to identify insights about them, target them precisely and measure our impact.

All of that explains why, as PR agencies expand far beyond media relations into digital, marketing and creative, we need proper planners too.

We’ve got a lot to learn from our ad agency colleagues here.

They’ve proven that planning ensures agency thinking is more rigorous and can cut it at the highest levels of client scrutiny.

It also enables agencies to develop more effective campaigns by tapping into audience behaviour.

If PR agencies are to keep growing, it will become more and more important to tick these boxes and prove the intellectual rigour and original insights that underpin everything we do.

The good news is PR agencies have natural strengths in this area.

We’ve spent decades trying to convince the toughest audience possible – fiercely sceptical journalists – to cover our clients’ stories.

That’s made us brilliant at telling persuasive stories based on data – the perfect recipe for great planning.

But we must remember that data isn’t everything.

Ad agency planners, for example, often base their insights on individual findings, comments in focus groups or anecdotal feedback.

Most PR agencies would run a mile from this kind of approach.

And having spoken to ad agency planners who’ve tried to make the switch to PR, it seems that disagreements about the value of more anecdotal insight explains many of the cultural clashes – and lost jobs – that have ensued.

Ad agencies have had 50 years’ experience in nurturing planners and integrating their thinking into how they work.

Ad clients expect planners to deliver the insight and strategy in pitches. We can’t expect to rival that overnight.

But we need to keep investing in specialist expertise, like planning and creative, to stay at the top of our game.

And we need to open our minds to other sources of insight and inspiration, apart from data alone.

Pete Marcus is group planning director at Harvard

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