Opinion: PR’s 2017 Trifecta

Alan VanderMolen, president international at We Communications, looks to the year ahead and makes three key predictions for the PR industry.


Alan VanderMolen

As my father likes to remind me during our phone call each morning, forecasts – in his case for weather – are rarely correct. They are either completely incorrect (‘dammit Alan, the forecast said it wasn’t going to rain today’), or partially incorrect (‘dammit Alan, if I knew the forecasted high temperature for today was going to be wrong, I would have carried my jacket with me’).

With that in mind, I hesitate to pen anything that resembles a forecast. However, since my father never heaps scorn upon the forecaster (I’m sure all meteorologists in Tampa, Florida are relieved) and simply curses their output, I take comfort as I venture a few guesses for PR in 2017.

Digital is my lens for considering 2017 – it’s the only part of the industry that has shown consistent growth over the past five years or so and which will continue to impact us moving forward. Here are three things for agencies and clients to ponder.

1. Promiscuous Consumerism
Thanks primarily to innovation on social platforms (WeChat and WePay) by Chinese marketers and global penetration of the mobile web, the effectiveness of content is increasingly measured by direct linkage to purchase.

There is a degree of brilliance here as pressure to measure effectiveness of PR (marketing PR primarily) continues unabated. Content producers – be they in-house, agency, media owners or platform owners – are being asked to show the path from content to purchase or, as we see in China, show the direct connection between content and commercial activity.

The result of the consistent application of this type of direct-marketing measurement to marketing PR will see consumers barraged by transactional communication (‘buy this here’) vs relationship communications (‘our brand shares your values’). The relationship value of brands to consumers will be diminished by the tangible benefits of products (functionality, cost/benefit, etc.) and the ability to click through to purchase from links embedded directly within content. The result will be less consumer loyalty, weaker relationships with brands and much more promiscuous purchase behaviour within specific categories.

So brands will have to work much harder at building values-based relationships with consumers based upon ‘how’ and ‘why’ they do what they do vs ‘what’ they do.

2. Commoditisation of Creative
The almost mythical hold that creative as a marketing services discipline (vs creative to drive earned media) has had on PR for the past three years or so will be threatened this year. Two factors will drive this:

  1. The rise of insights and analytics. Better tools and more discoverable data will shift power in the relationship between creative and marketer from one where creative is on top to one where analysts (or in my vernacular, modern planners) put the marketer on top. The result is that marketers will write much tighter briefs requiring faster turnaround for very specific platforms. The free reign (and, indeed, fee reign) of creatives will come under much price pressure.
  2. Supply will catch up with demand. The explosion of platforms and devices that we’ve seen over the last decade is slowing (with the significant exception of wearables). At the same time, the investments that PR agencies (and other, so-called non-creative agencies) have made are reaching critical mass. So, the once highly-sought after and astronomically-priced limited supply of creative is quickly catching up to demand, resulting in downward price pressure on the supplier vs upward price pressure on the client.

This is not to mention what is happening with artificial intelligence and its impact on insights, creative, devices and platforms… which provides fodder for a forecast unto itself.

3. Acute Agency Personality Disorders
About a year ago, a digital marketing pal of mine said that PR agencies want to be advertising agencies, advertising agencies want to be digital agencies and digital agencies want to be technology consultants. Take that and add acquisitions/investments that management and technology consultants are making into creative and marketing services and we have one acute epidemic of Agency Personality Disorder.

Just browse the propaganda on large PR agency websites and compare that to the propaganda on other large marketing services agencies’ websites. There is not much difference in the resulting agency and/or discipline narratives. Forget what each agency stands for or does and ask what each discipline stands for or does. The cynic in me says we are all chasing budgets…which are pooling in and around digital.

The lack of discipline definition may be good for large individual agency revenues (e.g. fish in any pond vs being limited to the earned media pond). However, the lack of defined discipline focus and service offering is tough on purchasers of marketing services, on management/ownership of agencies and on existing and potential employees of both because the requisite skillsets and deliverables are becoming increasingly homogenised instead of differentiated.

So, while large agencies and holding companies become more similar, we will see even greater acceleration in the rise of small, specialist boutiques who are chipping away at global brand marketing budgets at the expense of the behemoths…and, of course, independents remain well positioned to play the long-term, differentiated game.

Happy New Year.

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