For years, the mantra of Kevin Roberts, worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, has been that the advertising world is changing fast. And he is as good as his word - such is the pace of this change (consumers are switching off from TV ads and ignoring other channels altogether) that agencies such as his own have to reinvent themselves constantly to stay one step ahead of the game.
As advertising agencies are finding themselves under increasing pressure from clients to discover innovative ways of gaining attention for the client's message, the opportunity for savvy PR agencies to come up with their own answers is huge. But the downside is that media neutral, media planning and advertising agencies are not going to sit idly by and watch a chunk of their business eaten up.
While an overlap between the two sectors has always been there to a greater or lesser extent, it has noticeably changed in the past few years and Richard Stacey, joint managing director of Publicis Consultants in London says he can only see this trend accelerating in the future.
'I don't think a lot of PR people have really woken up to this threat,' he says. 'Media agencies are changing and moving into PR territory. Changing attitudes to advertising should be an opportunity for PR agencies because they should be best equipped to operate in a space consumers trust - but it is by no means a given. Some consumer PR agencies are in danger of not being around in five to ten years' time as the big media and ad players move into their space.'
Certainly, media agencies are not shy of encroaching into PR territory - they will do whatever it takes to keep their clients happy. If that means doing PR stunts themselves, so be it. If it means linking up with specialist PR providers, that is fine too. But, and it is a big but, they remain keen for the client relationship to stay with the media agency.
At the launch of the Thunderbirds film in London last autumn, media services group Zenith Optimedia had a 60-foot-tall Thunderbirds rocket built and placed in Trafalgar Square - a classic PR stunt, but developed and executed on behalf of the client by a media agency.
'I don't know if PR agencies see this sort of thing as a threat or not,' says Nick Leonard, a strategist at Zenith Optimedia, who works on bringing in other specialist agencies as and when they are needed on behalf of Zenith's clients. 'Those PR firms that know what they are doing will benefit - those that don't, won't. It's as simple as that. The driving force behind all of this is consumers. They are more cynical about traditional marketing messages so we need to engage them, entertain them and communicate with them.'
Leonard says the days when everything fitted neatly into communications segments are gone: 'The medium has become almost as important as the message itself. We have to think of the best way to communicate that message and offer a truly medium-neutral service to our clients.'
Zenith is by no means alone in doing more PR-related work for its clients.
Carat Media has a wealth of clients for whom a lot of its work has a strong PR edge, whether it be mega building wraps for British Gas or designing and writing the Scenic Days Out booklet for Renault that was inserted into 1.4 million BBC magazines. Carat Media has already set out its stall in this debate. In an interview with Campaign in December, its comms planner Ciaran Challis said its position was to develop media opportunities around target markets, and it sees learning more about PR as part of this. 'Planners must look at the big picture and understand PR and how to use it,' he says.
And among the new breed of 'media neutral' shops, Naked Communications certainly has no compunction in entering the PR fray. The company recently won the global communications
strategy for Prada fragrances which includes press, TV and PR work.
'Content is key,' says Howard Kosky, managing director of markettiers4dc, a specialist broadcast PR agency. 'People are becoming their own schedulers, so it is only natural that media agencies are looking at more opportunities in the area of content.
'But this is natural territory for PR agencies and perhaps they need to be a bit more proud and aware of that,' he adds. 'Media agencies are not going to surrender their budgets easily.
If more brands are going to start buying into content then it is hardly surprising there is a growing interest from the media agencies.'
Not surprisingly, there are differences of opinion as to what this all means for the PR world in the future. Some are convinced that marketing services as a whole will have fewer defined disciplines and less structural differentiation between, say, PR and media buying agencies.
Others, however, think it will lead to more definition with agencies teaming up according to need. As evidence, they point to the larger marketing services agencies that are already trying to encourage more cross-discipline working.
Ash Coleman-Smith, client services director at Ogilvy PR, sees two trends emerging: 'I think there has been an accidental overlap, where media agencies have also taken on PR activities, but more recently, there have definitely been those that have been more formalised and deliberate in doing this.'
But Stacey warns that consumer PR agencies will have to team up with other disciplines in order to survive. 'Both the PR and media agencies are missing a trick if they don't become more integrated,' he explains.
Others remain respectfully aloof from such trends, pointing out that what people are talking about is just one aspect of the wider PR world.
'I think advertising and marketing agencies generally have a pretty simplistic view of PR,' argues Terence Fane-Saunders, chairman and CEO of Chelgate PR and a former CEO of Burson-Marsteller.
'Other agencies think PR is a form of free advertising. Working on that assumption, it is understandable that they may want to include their version of a PR service in their offer to clients.'
But he warns: 'PR firms that think PR is just about generating media coverage could be vulnerable to encroachment. At firms like ours, the media relations function is just part of an integrated public relations process, together with other reputation and relationship management techniques.
It's that synergy which makes properly applied media relations so effective.'
Coleman-Smith agrees, but only to a point: 'Sure, media neutral agencies will only be as neutral as their understanding of a discipline - so if they've come from an ad background, PR probably won't get a look-in no matter how much they say they'll have a channel-neutral solution. This is why many PR agencies won't see them as a threat. '
However, he also points out that agencies could die of ignorance. 'PROs must bite the bullet and link up with other agencies themselves. That is the future. This should be seen as an opportunity.'
THE PR AGENCY VIEW
Melanie Kanarek, managing director at independent agency Berkeley PR, is not especially concerned at the growing threat from media and ad agencies - she sees it as more of an opportunity for good PR firms to strut their stuff.
'I don't think media agencies are necessarily doing PR any more than they have done in the past,' she says. 'In any case, there's a huge opportunity there for PR firms. Certainly our clients will often ask if there is any more they could be doing on a particular campaign. They expect us, as communications experts, to think outside the traditional PR box.'
She believes that the most important thing is that independent PR agencies provide their clients with the best possible solution - rather than frantically trying to sell in any service they can.
'Agencies in other disciplines will understand a certain amount of what we do. There's a temptation for us to try and be all things to all people but you must not lose sight of what your clients are paying you for: the best strategy.'
THE MEDIA AGENCY VIEW
Channel planner Richard Peters is well placed to comment on the changing PR landscape, given that he spends half of his time working for media agency MindShare, and the other half advising Ogilvy.
He is distinctly upbeat about the opportunities that a move away from traditional advertising by the other agencies present for PR companies.
'Yes, media agencies are looking for more innovative ways to get their messages across on behalf of clients,' he says, 'but that does not necessarily mean that PR firms will be squeezed out of the equation.
'I really see this as less of a threat than an opportunity for PR agencies.
What is important is that agencies position themselves higher up the communications chain. The further up they are, the more likely that it will be them that are commissioned to do the work. There's a real sense of need to get everybody (from different disciplines) around the table at a much earlier stage in a project. It's less a case of beware, more be aware.'