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Good on you Sir Martin - why Sorrell is right about Twitter being a PR medium, not an advertising one

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By Barry Dudley, Partner

March 1, 2013 | 7 min read

Today (Friday 2nd March) sees marketing services giant WPP unveil its latest set of results. These are being considered elsewhere on The Drum so I wanted to focus on something else that’s been going on in the world of WPP.

Sir Martin Sorrell says Twitter is a 'PR medium, not an advertising one'

The group’s founder and CEO Sir Martin Sorrell has long been seen as a bit of a guru when it comes to marketing – every utterance is pored over and endlessly analysed. So it was earlier this week when he told The Harvard Business Review that Twitter was “not an advertising medium but a PR one”.

As is always the case with, his timing was immaculate – his remarks were published less than a week after Twitter unveiled its advertising API or application programming interface – a bit of tech that allows developers to create programs and other software for the platform.

Essentially, Twitter’s Ad API means that marketers can now easily create and manage ad campaigns. It should be a big deal for Twitter, and indeed our entire industry, especially as rumours abound that a Twitter float is coming down the track. One of the great problems the industry has had to wrestle with over the past few years has been how to monetise (and ‘profitise’) social media. With this API, and its development partners, Twitter and its evangelists claim that the micro-blogger, which has around 200 million users worldwide, can really scale up its advertising offer.

The predictions certainly look impressive – Twitter predicts that its revenues are expected to rise from $350m (£230m) last year, to around $1bn (£658m) by 2014. But it’s here we have to return to Sir Martin’s intervention.

In his interview this week, he said that he thought Twitter wasn’t an ad medium but a PR one. Sir Martin admits that these sort of remarks have got him into trouble before, and confesses to wondering whether his younger peers might see him as a bit of “an old fart”. But I’ve got to say, I think he’s bang on the money here, and I know I’m not the only one to be glad that he’s shown leadership by sticking his head above the parapet.

Let’s consider what he says in the HBR: “I’m going to get myself shot again. I think it’s a PR medium. Again, it’s very effective word of mouth. If you look at the Olympics in London, the big winner was Twitter [not Facebook or Google]. We did analyses of the Twitter feeds every day, and it’s very, very potent. But I think because it’s limited in terms of number of characters, it reduces communication to superficialities and lacks depth.

“Oreo made a splash during the Super Bowl with a clever tweet during the blackout. Does something like that move the needle, or is it just something we talk about for a tiny cycle and then forget?”

Sir Martin acknowledges the importance of buzz – and also points out that with the addition of videos and pictures Twitter has gained a bit of depth and richness - but he’s also enough of a wise old bird to know the difference between buzz and deep brand engagement.

Here’s what he has to say about Facebook: “To my mind [it] is not an advertising medium. It is a branding medium. So if I can get you to say something nice about WPP or me or one of our companies on Facebook to your wife, your friends, or whoever, that’s good. But it’s a long-term mechanism. Compare that with Google. Say you’re searching for a car: We know that up to 90 per cent of car purchases in the U.S. are search-influenced. Depending on where you are in the purchase cycle, that number one ranking on Google seems more important than a Facebook ‘Like.’ This doesn’t deny the potency of Facebook. But it has to be seen in the context of a long continuum of brand building.”

Again Sorrell has hit the nail on the head. Long-term branding is what advertising’s really about, and for. Buzz and awareness are great but they are different, they can tend to be better used for more immediate need, for example driving a tactical sales campaign. Social media will not replace advertising as we know it, it’s more likely to become another part of the wider marketing mix; another tool in the box to use if needed. Interestingly, TV is still the most powerful advertising and brand engagement of all and accounts for 40 per cent of all worldwide advertising spend. TV viewing has not collapsed as was predicted – if anything, it’s increased.

It’ll be interesting to see next year – assuming Twitter floats – whether or not its IPO will follow the trend set by Facebook. The social network’s share price at IPO last May was $38; now it languishes around $27 (by way of comparison, look at the recent performance of that very British, very “old media” stalwart ITV which has increased by 50 per cent over the same period). Social media’s great in so many ways, and it’s a good source of news, but I’m not sure about its efficacy as a brand builder (awareness, yes, buzz, yes, but brand essence, no). And can you imagine if the much-vaunted “promotional tweets” Twitter has been developing become a kind of hyper-irritating, super-interruptive social spam? What damage could that do – not only to Twitter itself, but to the brands using the channel? We’ll have to see but I have to confess I have my doubts…

Sir Martin is not the first, nor is he the only, person talking about social media in a frank manner. But his opinions carry more weight that most, and he will be listened to. And, while he gets a certain amount of stick from certain quarters, he is more often right than he is wrong.

But don’t just take my word for it; go to the HBR and judge for yourself – it’s a fascinating interview with some interesting third party comments attached.

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