Social media: PR vs. Advertising vs. Design

Advertising, design and public relations all have something useful to contribute to social media. But they come from very different worlds and they each have hidden biases. Customers just experience the end result, but the way a company builds their reputation can be secretly swayed by the type of agencies that a company hires to help out with their social media. Owned, earned and paid media all add up to an overall impression of the brand.

Ad v design v PR

The business model of different agencies influences their approach to social media briefs.

I arrived in London at the height of the global financial crisis. Back then no one was hiring for Brand Strategists because it’s not a good look to do a new logo when you’ve just laid off 10,000 people. And it’s definitely not a good look to do a management workshop about the meaning of life to then choose the colour of the new logo when you’ve just laid off 10,000 people. So brand strategy (and in particular, the management consulting style brand strategy that I was most experienced in) had fallen off a cliff.

Luckily, I had a friend from the UK who warned me of this problem before I left New Zealand. He said to me:

“When you land, tell them at the airport that you know how to use Facebook and they’ll give you a job as a ‘Social Media Consultant’… whatever that is.”

So I redid my CV on the plane and highlighted every time that I had managed a digital project, every time I’d coached a CEO on social media and every time I’d used a customer insight to build a digital campaign. I’ve always been excited by the overlap of design, business and technology so “social media” was an easy thread to draw back through my resume.

In fact, digital innovation, online storytelling and social media were deeply woven through everything I’d done going back to my early days as a lawyer and even as a student at Berkeley.

Follow the money

My friend was right and digital communications was still trading through the recession in the UK. But I didn’t know what type of agency to work for. The market for communications agencies is much more specialised in the UK. In New Zealand pretty much every agency is an “integrated brand and communications agency” simply because there isn’t enough scale to ignore some channels and focus only on others.

Leigh Spencer

London’s creative industries are more specialised than in most cities. (Photo by Leigh Spencer)

To figure out where to work I tried to follow the money that clients were spending on digital campaigns. During the worst of the financial crisis, clients in almost every industry still had two pressing marketing problems:

  1. Sales were down because of the crisis, so companies were looking for cheap marketing activities that could be rolled out fast to try and stop the bleeding. Big budget campaigns had stopped but you still could scrape together a quick fire digital mini-campaign. Clients didn’t really know who to turn to for this type of work.
  2. The CEO’s teenage children where joining Facebook and Twitter so CEOs were starting to ask their marketing teams “What are we doing about social media?”. Change was starting to be asked for from the top. This meant that simple tactical campaigns weren’t going to be enough and things like ROI, CRM and customer-centered culture were about to become more important.

1. Advertising

I had always wanted to work in advertising. So fresh off the plane, I traipsed off to Leo Burnett, Starcom Mediavest and Dare Digital (who are really an ad agency). They were doing good digital work with big clients. The offices were full of bean bags, ping pong tables and rough wood. Very cool. Yet… Somehow every digital brief turned into a cute animated character and a series of YouTube videos or Facebook advertisements. Advertising agencies are naturally drawn to paid media when briefed to help a client with social media.

Advertising Planner

Advertising Planners approach social media through the lens of paid media.

One day after a great coffee with a Digital Planner (talking about behavioural insights and management workshops) I asked him “That sounds great, just the sort of work that I love doing. How do you charge for that type of strategy?” He turned to me and said

“We give away the strategy work for free because we can buy ads on Facebook for 5 pence and sell them to the client for 10 pence.”

Even with all the disruption of social media, the hidden business model of the advertising industry is still commissions on media. This can create excellent work but not a lot of opportunities to have honest strategic conversations with the client.

2. Design

Then I went to meet with a series of design firms like Design Bridge, Wolff Olins and Landor. They were doing great looking work and it reminded me of the brand strategy world that I was used to. The offices were polished concrete floors, stark white walls and lots of MacBooks. I felt at home. Yet… Somehow every digital brief turned a design and build project for a Facebook tab or a micro-site. Design firms are naturally drawn to owned media when briefed to help a client with social media.

Design Strategist

Design Strategists approach social media through the lens of owned media.

The average design firm’s business model seemed to hinge on their speed from “quote to completion”. They wanted to get through the work as quickly as possible, hand over the keys (and the invoice) and pretty much never see the client again.

The work was great and the design firms were “in the room” early on in the innovation process. But the one-off nature of the projects kept the strategy work restricted to individual products.

3. Public relations

By coincidence, John from Sumo Creative called and said that he had a digital role going at a public relations firm. I had discounted PR as an industry because in New Zealand it’s mostly fluffy publicists and old-boys club press release writers. Of course, I was wrong about the industry and London has the most highly evolved public relations profession in the world.

It turns out that the public relations firms take a surprisingly long term view of social media. Somehow every digital brief turned into building relationships with bloggers, running monthly events for super-fans and steadily pumping out an editorial calendar of content. Not always the highest quality, but they chip away building communities and a client’s reputation over time. PR firms are naturally drawn to earned media when briefed to help a client with social media.

Digital PR Strategist

Digital PR Strategists approach social media through the lens of earned media.

The business model for public relations is often a monthly retainer with service level targets based on the number of pieces of coverage each month. Lots of clients sign up to six month agreements and many are even longer.

The public relations firms seemed to have a few hidden advantages in delivering social media activity for clients:

  • PR firms have always had to rely on other people to convey the client’s message. So they are used to engineering a message in a way that can survive travelling through word-of-mouth.
  • PR firms are culturally biased towards storytelling because if a journalist doesn’t cover your story, you can’t blame the journalist. The pitch was weak or the story wasn’t interesting. This means that PR people judge their work by the audience reaction (a good bias for social media community building).
  • PR firms often have the ear of the CEO because they are the ones who the CEO calls at 4am when the BBC wants to do an interview about an oil spill or a product tampering emergency. (Not enough PR firms are making use of this access though.)

Some PR agencies are spinning out separate digital agencies like 33 Digital (part of Hotwire) and Things with Wings (part of Nelson Bostock). Whereas others like Edelman and Grayling have kept their digital capability under the same brand.

The future of the agency model

While advertising, design and public relations firms fight over their turf there a few interesting new players that are stepping up.

  • Product design firms are rapidly embracing digital and are bringing their “empathy first” style to innovation consulting. See Ideo and Adaptive Lab
  • Management consulting firms are catching up by buying or building digital capability. See Deloitte and Accenture Interactive
  • Startups and entrepreneurs are partnering with corporates to swap creativity for access to scale. See Wayra and The Bakery
  • Digital agencies and pure play social media agencies are growing up fast. See Social Partners, AKQA and LBI Digitas

My real interest has always been in making fundamental shifts inside an organisation to help them be more awesome. Whatever you call it, the goal is to get through the door with a client to talk about why they are in business, who their customers are and what really matters to them. These days the strategy could come to life in anything from an innovation programme to a new CRM or even a cute animated cartoon.

I’ve now worked in, for and alongside agencies of all types. I’ve learned that great ideas can come from any discipline and the most important keeper of the brand flame is the client themselves. Most companies still need some occasional tough love from someone who can see them not as they are, but as they could be.

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One thought on “Social media: PR vs. Advertising vs. Design

  1. Social media is really a mix of owned, earned and paid media. So every client needs a mix of advisors (depending on their campaign goals).

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