That quote is the best part of 50 years’ old. But change the word advertising to communication, and it’s as relevant today as the day it was written.
Ideas have always been the lifeblood of the communications industry. They engage consumers. They build brands. And if you wanted a Big Idea, all you had to do was open the Yellow Pages, go to ‘A’ for advertising agencies and pick up the phone.
Those days, however, have well and truly gone.
Today’s media landscape isn’t so much crowded as bursting at the seams.
Hundreds of TV channels. The Internet – at home, at work and on your mobile – 24/7, 365 days a year. Twitter. Vine. Facebook. The Apple iWatch…
And as for changes to consumer behaviour, long gone are the days when the family sat round the teapot waiting to be entertained by the commercial break in Coronation Street.
All this has left traditional ad agencies struggling.
Their business model is unable to keep up with the rate of change. In fact their business model may already be defunct, they just haven’t cottoned on to the fact yet. Just the other day, the world’s most famous ad man, Sir Martin Sorrell, declared that Twitter was “…not an advertising medium but a PR one”. Does he think consumers differentiate between the two?
Received wisdom was that the so-called Big Idea was the preserve of ad agency creative departments. And who could argue – after all they had the awards to prove it.
When press, radio and TV ruled the roost, that was fine. Executionally-led ‘big ideas’ communications were what got noticed. But let’s be honest, that wasn’t really such a big challenge. There was very little other media or content vying for the consumer’s attention. And you knew who the consumer was and how they behaved. Not any more.
In today’s increasingly fractured communications landscape, ideas have to be really big – they have to cross media boundaries. They must have ‘creative stretch’. That’s online, social, mobile and ideally experiential. And if required, print, TV and radio. They must be a lot more than just a “great ad”.
The difficulty facing clients is that the traditional agencies they turn to are all essentially siloed. That is, they have product to sell; be that digital, direct marketing or traditional advertising. And their business model is based on them selling that product.
Ad agencies are in the most difficult situation here as their thinking is most entrenched. Ask an ad agency for a Big Idea and they’ll try and sell you a great ad. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there is an inherent problem: the idea was conceived for the medium it inhabits – most likely TV, maybe print. The idea has been moulded to fit the medium.
Problems arise when the idea is then expected to live and breathe across other media. When it gets passed on to the experiential, social media, PR and digital agencies with the client refrain of “Make it work” ringing in the creative directors’ ears.
While this is undoubtedly a problem (not to mention bad marketing), it is also an opportunity. A business-transforming opportunity for the agencies that are confident and savvy enough to grab it with both hands.
And which agencies are best placed to take advantage? That’s easy: PR agencies.
But don’t just take my word for it.
A recent pan-European survey of 2,000 marketing students found that:
PR agencies are full of talented, clever, and yes, creative people. And more importantly they are neither culturally or structurally hidebound to supply a specific creative solution. “But they’ll supply a PR solution!” the doubters will cry. Well yes – because all great Big Ideas are PRable!
But their idea is more likely to be more open-minded.
They will arrive at a media-agnostic solution. It may involve digital / direct marketing / advertising / or social media. Or none of these. For the PR agency it doesn’t matter, they have the creative (and more importantly) the business freedom, to arrive at what they believe to be the right creative solution to the client’s communication needs. Try working in an ad agency and suggesting to your creative director that social media is the best answer to the client’s problem. You won’t get far (neither will your advertising career).
So how big is the opportunity?
It’s massive. The days of push media are over. People want interaction and experiences and entertainment. They want to be engaged. Think pop-ups, think festivals, think shareable social media.
Red Bull gets it.
And Coca-Cola is increasingly getting in on the act.
But it’s actually nothing new.
Legendary PR man Dan Edelman cut his teeth with a publicity stunt promoting the then revolutionary hair product ‘Toni home-perm kits’. He got front page coverage all over the USA by hiring sets of twins (one with a Toni perm) to go across the country posing for photo shoots kissing local celebrities.
The campaign was so successful the phrase “Which Twin has the Toni?” slipped into the vernacular. The campaign ran under different guises for four decades.
What’s that if it’s not a Big Idea?
Are PRs the new Mad Men?
Increasingly PR agencies are seeing their creative work recognised in creative awards competitions that were once exclusively the preserve of ad agencies. In the words of one of the UK’s most respected PR men:
And after his agency picked up six awards at the 2013 Cannes Lions he then went on to say:
Are PR agencies up to the challenge?
At present, when it comes to big ideas, PR agencies are some way off making the grade. A recent survey of 650 PR people across 35 countries found that:
Coming from people within the industry, that’s nothing short of damning.
But there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel. Because as we all know, recognising that you have a problem is the first step to solving it.
And how to solve it? Paul Holmes, author of the internationally-renowned website The Holmes Report, sums up the situation perfectly:
Is the industry ready to take on the challenge? Well put it this way; I for one won’t be surprised if we soon see PR agencies going head-to-head in pitches against Advertising and Brand Experience agencies.
Now that’s a Big Idea.