Ad Agencies Confuse PR with Brand Building

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Jeff Swystun
Jeff Swystun



Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution of the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is now viewed as the pinnacle of Madison Avenue’s influence. At the same time, the public relations profession was having its own golden days. The masters of spin were as sought after as the mad men.

As competition grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing, ad agencies turned to their public relations cousins and asked for help to stand out. From the mid ‘60s on, this took the form of pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. The vast majority of the content was announcing new clients an agency had picked up and awards won at the ever-increasing number of shows. Both of these items quickly became table-stakes material, contributing no real differentiation for the agencies. Sadly, the biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house. All this did was reduce cost as these folks brought little new to the equation.

The result is advertising agencies have confused public relations with brand building for the past 50 years. Do not get me wrong: Public relations has a part to play in ensuring an advertising agency is top of mind. However, most public relations practiced by agencies remain incredibly traditional and shockingly boring for an industry that prides itself on creativity. Avi Dan, founder of Avidan Strategies, wrote in a Forbes article that agencies that hire a public relations firm as a way to solve new business struggles are soon disappointed.

The fact is each and every advertising agency needs to be its own case study in how to build a brand. It should demonstrate to clients and prospects that it is constantly innovating and experimenting with its own communications. I recognize that agencies should not make themselves the stars. Agencies exist to turn client businesses into stars. As BBDO has consistently stated, it is “the work, the work, the work” that provides differentiation in the industry. But that does not mean showcasing the amazing work done for clients is mutually exclusive from building the agency’s brand. In fact, they are one in the same.

mccann-adYet take a look around the industry, and you will discover that few agencies do this well. Even when they do something that turns heads and generates discussion, it is highly episodic because the advertising culture trains them to think and work with a campaign mentality. Not surprisingly, the campaigns are fun but predictable, like the posters promoting Biedermann McCann in Paraguay and Young & Rubicam in Ukraine.

It is not only the traditional agencies that are stuck in this rut. I am amazed that digital agencies, even with the amount of talent and tools they have, end up looking undifferentiated from each other. Websites seem static, and capabilities such as interactivity and social media come across as commodities based on the incredible similarity across the category.


The solution is to build a brand communications strategy based on thought leadership, creative excellence and real evidence that work for clients has tangible impact. This is not to be confused with sending out a press release on the number of Cannes Lions or Effies won. One frustrated marketer recently peppered me with questions: Does the advertising industry suffer from low self-esteem? Are all these awards to make you guys feel better somehow? What is the deal with all this patting on your own backs? This flustered person could not understand the extent of self-congratulation within one industry and went on to question the relevance and authenticity of the activity.

The way to go to market, be on top and stay ahead is to consistently and creatively communicate thought leadership. We all love to see finished campaigns, but there is also an opportunity to show how the agency got to the finished product. Agencies are overly concerned with either giving up something proprietary or revealing they actually have nothing proprietary. Clients know that agencies do not have a repeatable, secret sauce that works in every situation. In fact, most tune completely out when agencies share their process in new business pitches. So, there is no danger in sharing more of ‘how we do what we do.’ It is the ‘how’ not the ‘what’ that helps differentiate an agency.

The second step is to showcase creative excellence. Agencies do this pretty well but most of it has no context so the work is presented like a pristine showroom of past glories. In fact, every agency website is basically a catalogue of client campaigns that says, “See, you could have something just like this if you work with us.” Thought leadership provides the context needed to present the work in a way that actually differentiates an agency. The aggregate of the industry’s websites, print materials and social media sites is one big Pinterest board — it is visually appealing but devoid of content or context.

The third area continues to scare the industry and that is providing evidence of real business impact. I have heard and been part of this discussion for more than 20 years, and it has gotten boring. Agencies need to demonstrate that they improve the client’s business; clients need to prove that agencies add value. Surely, there is some common ground where there are metrics and measures that both can claim as the result of working together? Savvy clients are finally — and rightfully — asking prospective agencies to share business results from work with existing clients. This is where tangible differentiation resides.


As always, history is a great source for inspiration. While writing a book on the history of marketing, I came across an example in N.W. Ayer. I firmly believe it was the most influential advertising agency at any time. It was smart, self-deprecating, confident but not arrogant, innovative and focused on making clients successful. Is that not a fabulous advertising agency brand? One bit of tactical brand building it put out in 1937 was in the form of an advertisement. This clever piece communicated client satisfaction, strength of relationships, ability to service clients in multiple markets and the longevity of the business. The subtle message said ‘we know what we are doing, and you can trust us.’

N.W. Ayer built its brand in another fascinating way. The agency took it upon itself to champion the advertising industry and to answer many objections that criticized its practice. To be a symbol of integrity for the entire industry was inspired branding. Throughout the 1920s, the agency’s communication strategy told mini-stories of the role advertising played in business success. One stated: “Production is a liability until consumption is assured. That is why the experienced imagination of advertising has been so instrumental in making dreams of great industries come true.”

Brand building is not solely public relations and it is not a campaign. It is a commitment to inventively and consistently communicating thought leadership, creative excellence and real evidence that work for clients has a tangible impact. I know that some agencies are capable of this if they would just acknowledge and invest in the communications their own businesses sorely need.

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