Inside the creative hot shops that want to eat PR's lunch

Advertising agencies are building their own earned media capabilities in myriad ways.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

The advertising industry has earned media dollars in its sights. 

Need proof? Look no further than the names engraved on Cannes Lions trophies, where creative agencies have continued to dominate the honors, even in the PR category. Or take it from newly minted Golin boss Matt Neale, who wrote "make no mistake, they are coming for us" about creative shops coveting earned media work. 

Advertising agencies aren’t using a one-size-fits-all strategy to develop earned media chops by simply bolting on PR talent. The size, shape and style of creative firms’ earned teams varies by firm. 

In some cases, it’s a specific group that’s an offering of a larger creative shop, as is the case with M&C Saatchi Public Relations, formed in 2010, which has 120 employees globally. The firm was founded and headquartered in the U.K., with personnel in the U.S., Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Dubai. It is better known in the U.K. than the U.S., but CEO Molly Aldridge wants to change that. 

"We’re keen to increase our profile stateside by winning some kudos clients and delivering some brilliant work," she says.

And it does win some big PR consumer accounts on its own, but a significant amount of business comes from its mother ship. 

"From a shared client group perspective, at the global level, we share 10 to 15 clients between us and the group," Aldridge explains. "I think there’s a huge opportunity to integrate and share more clients, and brands as clients want simple and integrated solutions combining advertising to PR to media. More briefs coming down the track are looking for a full 360 [degree] solution."

She notes that her group is focused on three areas: media relations, social and experiential.

"We have depth in those three channels, and we believe that, rather than trying to have a much broader offer with lack of depth, is a more powerful offer that clients find compelling. We have to be very clear internally and externally where we can add value," she says.

In other cases, earned media operations from a distinct team are tied to the larger advertising agency only by its name. Y&R PR launched in 2013 specifically to serve Pfizer, and at that time, it was tied more closely to its namesake creative shop than it is now, notes CEO Olga Fleming, who moved from BCW predecessor Cohn & Wolfe to launch the firm 

"At first, Y&R didn't have a PR agency, so it seemed natural for us to call it Y&R PR," she says. "Since then, we have worked very closely with BCW because we ladder through them, but we also work very closely with [creative agencies] VMLY&R as well as Wunderman, as well as a lot of the other ad agencies within WPP."

The Y&R branding has become less important over time, Fleming says. "In the beginning, because we were a new group, the name meant something, but now it doesn't really matter. We're known more for our people," she says. 

Fleming describes Y&R PR, which has 40 U.S. employees and staffers in BCW offices around the world, as a generalist agency that pitches for about half of its own work and gets the rest from sister WPP agencies. 

Yet despite the branding, Fleming adds that the firm’s independence is a selling point. 

"What I would say is a lot of clients sometimes are skeptical of combined blended teams [from ad and PR agencies] and for good reason." she says. "They want to know that there's chemistry between the teams and that they have worked together before, and so that's where I think we excel because we have a history of working together as people which makes it very easy for us to deliver good work."

However, Y&R PR does not compete with other WPP PR shops, says Fleming. 

"My experience has been that we don't do that," she says. "We very much work together with a lot of the other agencies. Often times, especially when work comes through an ad agency, they're coming to us because they know we have the expertise, the right set of staff or we don't have a conflict. Especially in spaces where there's a lot of action, you'll run into that issue, but we’re not in turf wars with other agencies at all."

At some point, the firm could even considering ditching the Y&R branding, Fleming says. 

"We've had a tremendous year," she says. "2020 could be a potential year when we might look at evolving our branding or evolving how we think about where we sit within [WPP] and all these other organizations, so there's potential for that especially as we grow and evolve."

One creative agency that has long had traditional PR capabilities is the Martin Agency. However, the firm is transforming its media relations and corporate comms services into more integrated, cultural offerings, says Jaclyn Ruelle, SVP and MD of cultural impact and brand communication. 

"The historical landscape of PR at the Martin Agency was a traditional corporate comms team that really was tasked to go to market to get ink for the agency," she says, adding that with her hire, the agency began expanding the size and scope of its earned media teams.

"We have a headcount of 23 people that breaks out between the earned comms and media teams," Ruelle says, noting that the group works to make earned media integral to the agency’s campaigns.

"Often times, when you're at the PR shop, you're asked to kind of bolt-on to a creative idea and you're kind of brought in last, if you will," she says. "Then it's very hard sometimes to manufacture the right type of moment that's going to be headline-worthy and that gets the right types of stories that you want to land."

Ruelle adds that she wants to build a consumer-facing practice that links up with paid media teams, communications strategists and others at the agency. "We're kind of like an amoeba inside the agency," she explains. "We move around and plug ourselves in to the key groups and moments where we can elevate, strengthen and amplify ideas."

Eventually, Ruelle’s group could pitch and win business on its own, Ruelle adds.

"In our future growth pipeline, there is a vision and a road map that will start to put us in a position where we could be pitching other types of business that may be coming in through our doors," she says. "So someone could enter through the cultural impacts lab that are not currently a creative AOR type client and we would absolutely welcome that and we absolutely are working toward a plan where we could bolster that."

At other creative agencies, earned media is not an island unto itself. At MullenLowe, it is not a separate group, but has carved out its own space, says EVP and managing partner Sheila Leyne. The firm has a team of 80 that handles social influencer work and media relations, mostly in its Boston office, as well as in New York and Los Angeles. 

"We do a lot of buzz-related activation work for a lot of our integrated business and standalone business," she says. "PR has always had a seat at the table at MullenLowe. Very early on, our leadership understood that clients really need to use it."

The earned-media-focused team pitches and wins somewhere between 40% to 60% of the work it does each year, while the rest comes from campaigns won by the creative agency at large. At times, fellow IPG agencies are colleagues; at other times, competitors. 

"Sometimes we come up against them directly when we're competing for PR business, no question," Leyne says. "There are many situations globally, where, you know, we may be working with a Golin and a MullenLowe creative office for example. Certainly, they are sisters as well as competitors."

At Droga5, the situation is a little different. The agency’s reputation is built on its creative strength, says chief media officer Colleen Leddy, noting, "I think that first and foremost, we're a creative shop."

However, the ideas that come from Droga5 are designed to work in both earned and paid environments, and the agency makes a point of including tactical communications staffers, as well as traditional media relations employees, early in the process. 

"I think our creative team is really trained in understanding the potential of earned," she says. "Droga was set up on earned and PR and on big ideas...and the idea of influencing culture and PR is one of the main that we aim for with most of our ideas."

She notes that the agency has a communications strategy group of about 30 staffers dedicated to looking across channels and determining a channel strategy as well as a small PR staff.

"That entire team helps to bring channel thinking upfront in the creative process, and then we tap very specifically into our PR team, when there's a PR specific or comms idea that we need to bring to life," she added. 

TBWA does not have a separately branded earned media team or PR division, at least here in the U.S. Still, the agency that created the famous 1984 Super Bowl ad for Apple certainly understands how to create paid media messages that resonate in the broader culture. 

"You know that original TV spot was a cause celebre," says Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA in New York. "It was the quality of the content that was talked about as well as the boldness of it. ‘Oh wow, that was actually on the Super Bowl,’ people said." 

However, Schwartz says that earned media can’t be generated accidentally as a by-product of a paid campaign anymore.  

"We used to have an idea, make it happen, and then we would run to the corp comms people and say, ‘Hey, look what we did. Can we get some press on this?’" Schwartz says. "I think what we're seeing now is that you really have to plan for it. It's not just going to happen by accident that you're going to get earned media." 

TBWA global head of communications Anaka Kobzev says the agency has eight earned media staffers in the U.S. working with creatives. At times they work with other Omnicom agencies, and at other times with outside vertical specialists or local market experts embedded in a particular media market for a technical campaign. 

"That's the model: kind of our in-house-plus model," Kobzev explained. 

But that could change soon. In Australia and New Zealand, TBWA has a group called Eleven PR that teams PR staff with creative talent to develop ideas designed to work in PR and social, and unlock earned media and cultural impact. The network is expanding Eleven to South Africa and considerting other markets, including New York.


Agency: CLM BBDO

Client: Mars Wrigley group

Brand: Snickers

The concept: What would happen if the Mars employees were overly hungry and in need of a snack?

The result: Some 20,000 social media interactions, 15,000 of which were on Twitter.

Not surprisingly, the earned media activations of creative shops often play off of the expectations consumers have of the brands they represent. 

That was the case when CLM BBDO, a Paris-based agency and part of BBDO Worldwide, came up with a new take on the Snickers tagline, "You are not you when you're hungry."

In a visceral demonstration, the brand inserted Bounty Bars in Snickers wrappers, which naturally upset fans of the candy bar. They hopped on Twitter and in a few hours the hashtag #SnickersGate went viral, sparking more than 20,000 interactions.

The candy brand waited 24 hours before revealing the hoax, with the spin off tagline, "We’re not us when we’re hungry."  

The kicker? Executive creative director Benjamin Dessagne says the idea wasn’t originally conceived of as an earned media play; it was only supposed to live on outdoor advertising and Twitter. The idea, he says, comes first and decisions about channels comes later.

"First, we start thinking about an interesting concept," he says, "and then sometimes you feel that maybe we can make more noise in PR."

Agency: M&C Saatchi Public Relations

Client: Christie’s 

Campaign: The Koons’ Rabbit

Concept: The Own the Controversy campaign that drew on the critical reviews the sculpture generated in 1986 when it was unveiled. 

The Result: Rabbit sold for $91.1 million, becoming Koons’ most expensive piece, the most expensive sculpture ever, and the most expensive artwork by a living artist.  

Jeff Koons’ iconic post-modern sculpture, the Rabbit was going up for auction. Although only a few people qualified financially as potential buyers, M&C Saatchi Public Relations was asked to create enough buzz to grab their attention. 

The challenge: how to create a conversation among the general public about something that very few people can actually afford. 

M&C Saatchi Public Relations positioned the sculpture as an icon about which everyone should have an opinion. The team worked with M&C Saatchi Group creative shop Lida using video and print assets and installation at Christie’s iconic Rockefeller Plaza façade to fuel an influencer campaign that caught fire with a younger audience.

The opening line of the video exemplifies the campaign’s approach: "What if you set out to sell the ultimate luxury object by quoting the very worst things ever said about it?"

Agency: TBWA

Client: Columbia Journalism Review

Concept: Create a fake newsstand to draw attention to the problem of fake news.

The result: A one-day campaign that was picked up in 103 countries even though zero media dollars were spent.

TBWA decided to confront people with a tangible representation of the misinformation that is being spread by creating a fake newsstand in New York’s Bryant Park. 

Faux magazines and newspapers featured sensationalized headlines captured from the internet. Each publication held an insert that detailed the hallmarks of false news, hopefully motivating readers to think twice about the validity of the content and the reliability of the sources from which they’re getting it. 

Columbia Journalism Review - Fake News Stand from TBWA_NY on Vimeo.

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