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The consumer doesn’t draw a distinction between advertising and PR – so why would we?

Richard Pinder

Last week’s news of ad agency Brooklyn Brothers’ acquisition by PR firm Golin was another reminder of the so-called convergence of the two disciplines in today’s always-on world.

As the narrative goes, the need for closer alignment – if not full integration – of previously distinct disciplines is changing the shape and nature of the modern PR or advertising company, with implications not least for the types of talent they need to recruit – or in Golin’s case, gain through acquisition.

While few would question the validity of this narrative, I suspect any industry outsider might wonder how on earth PR and advertising ended up separate enough from each other in the first instance, to even warrant today’s discussions about convergence, let alone bets being taken on which discipline is best-placed to ‘lead’ in the modern marketing mix.

The reality is that the consumer doesn’t draw a distinction between advertising and PR. And I would venture that advertising legends like David Ogilvy or Leo Burnett didn’t pigeonhole their creative thinking this way either. Nor did Lord Bell who led Saatchi Advertising in the UK to great effect in the late 70s and 80s and went on to found Bell Pottinger, a leading PR firm. Surely the most powerful form of communication is and always has been about heart-stopping creativity that gets people talking, and influences behaviour. Is that PR, is that advertising? Does it matter?

That’s not to say of course that there aren’t some incredible changes, most a result of digitalisation and technological innovation, that are rightly driving the contemporary argument for a more seamless integration of disciplines. From the meteoric rise of data, social and content as the cornerstones of modern marketing, to the growing importance of corporate reputation within the C-suite, there was never greater impetus for the marketing communications industry to end siloed thinking and operations.

That such siloed thinking, particularly between advertising and PR, has continued to dominate for so long is what shocks me.

Yes, advertising’s heritage is in the notion of disruption to gain audience, versus PR’s end-goal of earning the audience's trust. But truth be told advertising as a discipline stopped being about disruption some time ago – at least at the more forward-thinking agencies like CP+B, Droga5 or BBH. These agencies – and yes I work for one of them – produce ads. But they have always treated PR as integral to what they do, setting out to optimise content-led creative ideas for clients that grow audience across what we now call earned as well as paid and owned media. (CP+B’s Alex Bogusky famously directed creative teams to formulate their campaign ideas as press releases).

These so-called ad agencies have for a long time understood that content-first thinking would deliver greater rewards for brands than advertising’s established, interruptive approach. That starting campaign ideation with a view of people’s aspirations, their hearts and minds, and then bridging back from that place to commerce was a more relevant and likely successful approach to marketing. And that the agency best able to create value for its clients would be neither an ad agency nor a PR agency, but one that is committed to cultural pulse-taking, and cultural change.

All this is to say that while there is indeed a growing meeting point between traditional creative agencies and the earned disciplines, as they come together around content and social in an always-on world, the need for advertising and PR to work in sync – each discipline constantly informing the other – has, I would argue, always been there.

So whether it’s Grey’s investment in its fast-growing PR unit in New York, Weber Shandwick’s 2014 launch of Sawmill, a full-service ad agency or Golin’s acquistion of Brooklyn Brothers, the argument in support of a much closer alignment of advertising and PR thinking is clear. And at the agency with the elephant logo, reminding us every day that PT Barnum walked his elephants through town to get folk talking before he advertised his circus shows, we couldn’t be happier.

Richard Pinder is CEO, London and international, Crispin Porter + Bogusky

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Richard Pinder

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