“So you’ve got a seat at the grown-ups’ table. Now what?”
An open letter to Public Relations professionals from Norman Sherman.
Well, the world of marketing communications certainly has changed, hasn’t it? For as long as any of us can remember, advertising was the center of the marketing and branding universe. So much so, that Procter & Gamble, recognized for its sophistication by many if not most knowledgeable observers of the marketing world, called its Marketing Department the Advertising Department. Brand Managers who succeeded would one day climb the career ladder and be promoted to Advertising Manager.
Advertising represented the lion’s share of most companies’ marketing budgets. And the advertising agency was generally looked to as the client’s primary business partner…participating in everything from business strategy to new product development. When the CEO had a business challenge, who was he or she likely to reach out to? That’s right, the advertising agency.
So what’s changed? Advertising spending as a percentage of total marketing spending has been in decline for over 20 years, and now represents well below 50% of that total. “General” agencies are viewed as dinosaurs, seeing the world through the lens of the 30 second television commercial. Technology has driven countless new communications vehicles and channels. And with this technology has come the ability to truly measure the effectiveness of communications. John Wanamaker, a greatly respected merchant in his day famously remarked: “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” What was once acceptable, no longer is.
As the advertising tower began to show more and deeper cracks, “below-the-line” communications began to rise in importance. Direct marketing, digital, and Public Relations in particular are now playing a more important role in marketing plans. Direct marketing and digital are easy to understand due greatly to their inherent ability to measure results. In fact, many argue that digital is nothing more than a direct marketing channel.
But why Public Relations, an industry that historically was allocated budgets a mere fraction of what went to advertising? What happened? I see three fundamental causes: 1) As advertising was falling out of favor, there was more money to distribute to other disciplines. And PR was relatively cheap. 2) Nearly four years ago, Procter & Gamble (here they are again) made headlines when it proved the connection between PR and sales, using a marketing-mix modeling approach. In three of the 6 brands tested, PR had the highest ROI of all marketing elements, in the other three it was second. PR finally had real data validating its ability to drive business results. 3) And the biggie…social media, “the next big thing” in marketing is the “now big thing.” And who better to understand, and take leadership in the area than Public Relations. After all, social media is really no more than a channel through which non-paid media coverage can be obtained.
So here you are Public Relations professional. You’re hot. You’re in demand. You’ve been invited to the grownups’ table. It’s what you’ve always wanted.
But, be on notice: the expectations change once you get to the grownups’ table. It’s no longer OK to take the marketing strategy that’s been developed elsewhere and turn it into PR tactics. I can’t begin to count the number of senior PR professionals I’ve spoken with who don’t distinguish strategy from tactics. The good ones understand PR strategy. But, it’s truly the rare industry individual who understands marketing strategy and takes a holistic view about how best to execute it.
At the grownups’ table you’re expected to create ideas…ideas that can build a client’s business. This is not, “let’s do a Facebook page.” It’s not “we need a celebrity spokesperson.” These are merely tactics, not ideas. Real ideas are firmly grounded in sound strategic thinking. Through an understanding of the target audience, the product or service, the competition, and relevant trends, insights are identified. Insights are the magic that spark real ideas. Ideas that make connections between strategy and execution. They jump over logic and process. They’re simple to articulate, yet powerful in their impact. These are ideas that are not tied to any one particular communications discipline. These are ideas that transcend disciplines, and can be integrated across them.
These are the big ideas. They’re rare and hard to find. But when you do, what a difference they can make…“game changers” so to speak.
Think this way; contribute this way, and your nameplate will stay at the grownups’ table. In fact you’re likely to find that your budgets are increasing as you’re taking the lead on integrated programs. Getting a piece of the budget that might have gone to other disciplines. Why can’t you do retail tie-ins as part of the event you’ve created to generate publicity? Why can’t you capture the names of people who participate and build CRM programs? Why can’t you create the brand-reinforcing advertising that builds awareness for the event?
Well you can. You’re at the grownups’ table.