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The Communications Sandbox: Playing Nice Between PR, Digital Advertising, and Creative Agencies

Guest post by Al Chen. Al used to work in TV advertising at Google and is currently a native advertising manager at Cooperatize.

Remember when PR shops only handled PR duties for a brand and digital media agencies focused on executing digital campaigns? Every agency had their own sandbox to play in, and no one really had to share their toys with anyone else. New recruits looking to enter the PR, digital media, and creative agency world went to school for these specific trades and had a relatively clear career path within each of these sandboxes.

Today, more agencies that are traditionally PR are now taking on digital and creative duties, meaning there is one giant sandbox where all the toys (talent) need to be distributed. Weber Shandwick, a traditional PR agency, recently announced Sawmill, their paid media arm. Two other big PR agencies that re-branded themselves to bolster their capabilities include Fleishman Hillard and Edelman. Fleishman Hillard CEO Dave Senay stated the re-brand speaks to the agency’s “ability to help clients navigate a world demanding unprecedented authenticity and transparency.” Similarly, Edelman’s Australian CEO now global chair of consumer marketing Michelle Hutton aims to “elevate the role of PR to CMOs and gain share from creative, digital and media agencies.”

Many pundits in the industry call this new hybrid agency a “fully-integrated” agency. My personal favorite, as if agencies draw their org charts in circles, is the “360-degree” agency. Why is this trend happening in the first place?

The Owned, Paid, and Earned Media Stew

A major driver for this trend is technology rapidly changing how companies can 1) Get discovered on and offline and 2) Advertise their products and services. Twitter and Facebook are now major platforms for businesses to build and nurture current and prospective clients. This has led to a crop of professionals specializing and helping brands create engaging content for social media, or owned media. “Content is king,” and “everyone’s a publisher,” and so forth. By the way, did you know Bill Gates coined “content is king” back in 1996? I know, mind blown.

Hold on a second, you can buy content on Facebook in the form of sponsored posts (paid media), and these posts can lead to people naturally sharing your content on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social platform (earned media). Now imagine this cross-pollination happening between social platforms AND the brands and agencies producing the content! The lines of ownership over these three types of media can easily become blurred.

Agencies Evolving With Technology

Even back in 2011, Lauren Drell from Mashable spoke with directors from 360i, MediaVest, and Razorfish about how the social web is influencing agencies--from the work they do down to the way the teams are structured. The overall theme seems to be that agencies have started to think more nimbly in completing work for their clients. More generalists are hired over experts since understanding one social platform or technology won’t cut it; you need to understand how communication components integrate with each other to reach the goals for the campaign.

This brings us back to the original topic at hand, how are all these experts from these different agencies going to play nice in this ever-changing sandbox? Here are some quick tips and ideas to think about:

If you work at a PR Agency

One of the most valuable tools in your shed is something that no one else has. This “thing” is not even really a thing, as it can’t be built with technology or code: relationships.

Being able to leverage your relationships with news outlets, magazines, even other agencies to communication goals will always (traditionally) be the strength of a PR firm. However, in the digital media world where every click and second spent can be measured, more clients are looking for digital media metrics on PR-related activities.

This means being able to track how many shares a press release received or what the CPM is on a given communications program. Getting a hold of these metrics is something that digital agencies are good at. Attributing numbers and metrics to all your work underscores the dilemma between audience and reach. While getting 1M people to read your press release is great, a more successful communications program may mean only getting 1,000 people that are in your specific A35-54-single-females-who-own-minivans demo to read your press release.

If you work at a Digital Media Agency

More brands are looking for that silver bullet that shows them how their TV commercials are driving in-store sales, or the brand lift associated with a social media program. While not all metrics are created equally, being able to compute a quick ROI is what makes your job easy (and difficult) for proving success to your clients.

Having said that, the blurring of earned, paid, and owned means finding new ways to track engagement and affinity that have never ben tracked before. While it’s easy to benchmark a direct-response CPC campaign on AdWords, how do you measure success for raising brand awareness for a travel destination on Instagram? Brittani Wood wrote some fantastic tips on how the Pure Michigan campaign successfully utilized existing content on Instagram to make Michigan the most popular travel brand on the photo-sharing platform. Brittani references specific tools to track engagement that can help translate the engagement that’s happening on Instagram into digestible metrics for the client.

If you work at a Creative or Branding Agency

I wrote about the programmatic movement that is forging ahead on my company’s blog, and how advertising is slowly getting automated to the point where computers are bidding against other computers for dollars and impressions. This is a draconian view of the world, but what if the advertising industry is simply a marketplace for traders to manipulate?

I believe advertising can be useful for consumers, and stories can be told that stir emotions and cause people to re-evaluate their beliefs in a Maslow’s pyramid sort of way. This is before the contracts are signed and the keyword bids are set and the dayparts are selected, a creative agency comes in and gives the campaign that touch that can never be quantified. Creative talent is not easily bought and sold on a marketplace or optimized through an algorithm, and it behooves all other parties in the sandbox to listen to your team when all the numbers and facts cannot tell the entire story.