Public relations is set to play a greater role in the marketing mix, according to industry leaders at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival, despite its relatively low profile at the week-long event.
The increasing importance of social media and reputation is driving this shift, said senior marketers in conversations with the Holmes Report.
Johnson & Johnson VP of corporate affairs Brian Perkins pointed out that PR agencies had taken the lead in social media for many of the consumer goods giant’s businesses around the world.
“PR agencies have done a great job leading the way in social media, understanding the upside and downside to the point where there’s a blurring of responsibilities between a traditional ad agency, the PR agency and even the client,” said Perkins.
In particular, Perkins pointed to the PR industry’s feel for “tripwire issues”.
“I think the insights PR has had into that and how to address that, especially on the downside has really led the way,” he said.
Anheuser-Busch Inbev VP of global connections Maarten Albarda, meanwhile, noted that a re-engineering of the newly-merged beer giant’s entire marcomms infrastructure will mean a much bigger role for PR.
Albarda, who reports directly to AB Inbev CMO Chris Burggraeve, said that the company is attempting to become much more consumer-centric, and was looking beyond terms such as earned and owned media. “That is an outcome of a choice process that has to be consumer-based and consumer-driven.”
Instead, explained Albarda, AB-Inbev is attempting to implement a truly discipline-neutral approach internally. “We’re changing our briefing process –to make sure it is more open and more descriptive. For instance, on budget splits, in the old days – the media brief went to the media agency, the creative brief to the creative agency. And hopefully there was a PR brief.”
“What we’re now trying to get to is a model where we get all of those briefs out at the same time to a collection of agencies – and then have them develop one plan,” continued Albarda. “And the budget split is an outcome of that process rather than an input.”
This approach, added Albarda, means that PR agencies have a “seat at the table”, rather than being brought in late in the process.
“If they have a seat at the table in that initial conversation, chances are if there is an idea it will come out,” he said. “If they don’t have a seat at the table to begin with, and we bring them in at the last minute, you eliminate a well of ideas.”
Perkins, however, cautioned that service agencies in general needed to work out how to provide a more “unified approach to clients”. “How can they work together better?”
And while he said that J&J is “open to everything”, Perkins voiced concern over whether PR agencies are ready to lead an entire marketing programme. “Can ideas come from them? You bet. But are we going to reach out to PR firms to do TV advertising? We’d have to see the capabilities.”
In an on-stage conversation with WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell, meanwhile, new Unilever chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed said that social media offered a “unique” opportunity to create buzz.
While Sorrell described social media as an “editorial thing” that is “the modern form of letter writing,” Weed rebuffed the assertion that brands should refrain from “polluting” them.
Instead he said that social media was like “word of mouth on steroids”. “The capability of pulling together vast amounts of people and spreading messages is something unique.”
Touching upon reputation, meanwhile, Weed said that “brands are a force for good”, despite current negative sentiment towards big business. “You will judged more by your actions than by your slogans,” he pointed out. “Doing good is an absolute necessity for your business.”