Saturday 29 April 2017

Winter is coming in battle for future of marketing and communications

In a fragmented landscape, embracing advertiser-generated content and digital may offer PR firms a lifeline as agencies and brands face new challenges

A car drives during snowy conditions along the Dark Hedges, which was featured in the TV series Game of Thrones, near Ballymoney in County Antrim. Like Game of Thrones, there will be plenty of action, plenty of blood and lots to focus the minds of the industry's tribal leaders Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A car drives during snowy conditions along the Dark Hedges, which was featured in the TV series Game of Thrones, near Ballymoney in County Antrim. Like Game of Thrones, there will be plenty of action, plenty of blood and lots to focus the minds of the industry's tribal leaders Photo: AFP/Getty Images

John McGee

Winter is coming - and as the various armies and factions within the marketing communications industry fight and wrestle amongst themselves for the hearts and minds of consumers and the budgets of their clients, the relentless march to the new lands of convergence, data, personalisation and uncertainty will continue.

Victory and defeat will abound in equal measures, new armies will form, alliances will be forged and the spoils of war will be distributed amongst the most powerful, the most agile and, of course, those that have the best armies and weaponry at their disposal.

While the Game of Thrones metaphor might be stretching it a little bit, the scene is certainly set for a massive and equally dramatic shake-up of a highly-fragmented marketing communications landscape that includes everything from advertising and media agencies, direct marketing and digital companies and of course public relations firms. Like Game of Thrones, there will be plenty of action, plenty of blood and lots to focus the minds of the industry's tribal leaders.

In much of the debate surrounding the future of marketing communications, however, most of the attention is focused on advertising and the many challenges agencies, their clients and their brands face. In many ways, they are often the same challenges that public relations (PR) firms face.

For most PR agencies, gone are the days when the retainer covered the press-cuttings they had amassed, the long lunches with journalists they wooed or the strategic advice they delivered. Yes, some of this is still important but like their creative, media and consulting counterparts, the source of their daily bread and butter has become a lot more complex, onerous and, not surprisingly, digitally-focused. Big challenges and big battles lie ahead.

"There was a time, not long ago, when you knew who your competition was. They offered the same services more or less, charged around the same as you and looked and talked pretty much like you did. Now, however, all has changed," says Michael O'Keeffe, managing director of the Dublin-based PR firm PSG Communications.

"There are changes happening all around PR firms. Media buying agencies have hired creative folk, digital experts, content generators and sponsorship strategists. Traditional below the line agencies are now offering social media and digital, some consumer PR and influencer engagement, while creative agencies have hired PR experts, social media experts and more. PR agencies on the other hand are now delving deeper into brand strategy as well as offering new services such as creative, video, digital and design," he adds.

He also points out that the more traditional corporate and public affairs agencies, which previously owned the relationship with their client and acted guardians of their reputation and strategy, are now finding themselves in competition with management consultancies in some cases.

"Your competition set is now far more complex and diverse," says O'Keeffe. "This isn't going to go away in the next 12 months, so you need to think differently about who you are competing with and how you differentiate yourself."

He adds that convergence of a different kind can also be perceived as a big threat to PR agencies as companies expand their service offerings into digital, content, video, SEO, social media and even creative. All of a sudden, they then find themselves up against bigger and sometimes better resourced competition with deeper creative and digital and planning roots. And herein lies one of the big conundrums for the industry. What will the agency of the future look like? Will they offer a little bit of everything under the one roof? Or will the industry contract to a sustainable level of multi-talented and specialist agencies, each of them ploughing their own separate but inter-linked furrows?

Unfortunately, nobody has all the answers.

There's lots that PR agencies can do to try and cement their future, says O'Keeffe, but it will require an investment in new skills sets and embracing a mindset that takes account of the changing consumer landscape and new ways of doing things. A growth area for many PR companies in recent years has been the development of sponsored content and paid-for content.

"Advertiser generated content is something that is not going to go away, especially as ad blocking continues to rise and media owners seek revenue streams and are open to accepting content from a trusted third party," he says. "Traditional PR and media types may not like it, but anything branded in look or tone will shift towards the sponsored or paid for variety. Instead of fearing this, both media owners and PR firms need to embrace this. Buying media space is one thing. Writing and creating content that readers will actually want to read is another," he says.

"Good PR firms have the ability to bridge this gap. Good commercial content can and should be valuable and readable. Advertisers and media buyers simply cannot provide this function. Pure journalists struggle with this concept too. This gap can and should be filled by good content-generators from PR firms," he says.

The bottom line in all of this is that PR professionals will need to adapt and innovate to stay relevant. If they don't, winter will indeed be harsh. If they do, they can look forward to a pleasant spring and a glorious summer.

Contact John McGee at john@adworld.ie

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