Ad Agencies Confuse Public Relations with Branding

Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution in advertising from the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is 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 martini-soaked mad men (apologies for reinforcing the stereotype).

Soon competition among ad agencies grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing. Work dried up so agencies turned to their public relations cousins for help. From the mid ‘60s on, this meant pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. Most of this trumpeted new business wins and awards gained at the ever-increasing number of shows. This contributed no real or meaningful differentiation especially given all agencies followed the same playbook. The biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house.


The result is advertising agencies have confused public relations with true brand building for the past 50 years. Do not get me wrong, public relations has a part to play, however, most of it is incredibly traditional and shockingly boring for an industry that prides itself on creativity. Avi Dan writes in Forbes that agencies that hire a public relations firm as a way to solve new business struggles are consistently disappointed.

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. This is difficult because agencies cannot make themselves the stars. Agencies exist to turn client businesses into stars. As storied agency 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.

Few agencies do this well. Most are notoriously challenged to merchandise themselves (cobbler’s shoes and all that). Even when they do something that turns heads, it is highly episodic because the advertising culture trains them to think and work within a campaign mentality. They are short burst efforts. The campaigns are fun but predictable, like the posters promoting Biedermann McCann in Paraguay and Young & Rubicam in Ukraine.

advertising-agency-creativity-small-21800It 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 of your own backs?”

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. Bring prospective clients inside and show them how you think, work and collaborate. Agency case studies are horribly flat if they exist at all.

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 processes in new business pitches. So, there is no danger in sharing more of ‘how we do what enhanced-buzz-wide-20667-1392163446-48we do.’ It is the ‘how’ not the ‘what’ that differentiates 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.” Thought leadership provides the context needed to present the work in a way that is relevant and compelling. The aggregate of the agency websites, print materials and social media sites is one big Pinterest board — it is visually appealing but devoid of context or substance.

Too few agencies are confident to claim any improvement in their client’s performance. This is not lost on anyone.

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. 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 of inspiration. I came across an example from N.W. Ayer. I firmly believe it was the most influential advertising agency at any time before being unceremoniously phased out by Publicis. The agency was always smart, self-deprecating, confident, innovative and focused on making clients successful. Is that not what a fabulous N_ W_ Ayer and Son -1920Aadvertising agency brand should be? One bit of tactical brand building it put out in 1937 was an actual advertisement. This clever piece talked about 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.”

Agency 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.

2 replies
  1. Larry Alvares
    Larry Alvares says:

    So glad someone finally said it. My agency couldn’t market themselves out of a wet paper bag. They take no suggestions either.


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