Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

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On Advertising & Getting What You Pay For

Blitz Magazine, November 2002

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This issue is the 5-year anniversary issue of this magazine; here’s hoping that readers may look forward to more Blitz pages. Osama’s attacks and corporate corruption didn’t just rock the stock market—they knocked the wind out of magazine ad sales. You have, no doubt, noticed that every magazine you pick up is a lot thinner than in previous years. As for me, if all the people who gush about how much they love Blitz don’t start supporting it, I’m going to pitch my publisher’s hat into the Pacific.

The experts keep telling us that the Canadian economy is the envy of the G7, that we’re perfectly stable and thriving and bla bla. ‘Problem is, Canadian businesses don’t appear to believe that. The response of many has been to cut advertising budgets.

This is most unfortunate, because it is an inviolate rule of business that the uncertain, or down, times is when advertising is crucial. You can advertise when you have gobs of cash coming in—but you must advertise when it seems like you can’t afford to. Otherwise, you’ll sink.

Some recent examples: In an effort to maintain earnings, Bristol-Myers cut advertising by 14%; three of its five top-selling drugs are now losing their monopolies. Buy.com thought that cutting ad spending would save the company; sales immediately dropped by $20 million. Samsung decided to eliminate “unnecessary” costs. A spokesperson said: “The company is seeking ways to reduce travel, traffic, advertising and miscellaneous expenses.” To this, Sergio Zyman responds: “If you’re the kind of company that puts advertising in the same sentence as ‘miscellaneous expenses’, you deserve what you get.”

Zyman is the former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola and the author of the newly-released The End of Advertising As We Know It. His point is that, in an effort to capture the attention of information-overloaded consumers, ad agencies have had to find increasingly inventive ways to reach audiences. Which is fine, except that the focus on brand awareness has shifted. Now, everybody seems to want to use every technical tool available—just because it’s there, to create hip portfolio pieces and win awards. When the focus should be on sales results, i.e. the actual goal. Zyman cites K-Mart as a perfect example: huge awareness, but it’s in bankruptcy. Remember the Taco Bell Chihauhua commercials? The ads won awards, the client’s sales tanked.

Over the last five years, I’ve had hundreds of calls from ad agencies and pr firms. The conversations rarely vary:

Caller: “We’ve done a terrific campaign for ABC Widgets and we think it would make a great article.”

Me:      “Well, the campaign isn’t newsworthy. The results are newsworthy.”

Caller: “Huh?”

Me:      “Once the campaign is well under way, or complete, the increase in sales figures would make it a story.”

Caller: “I don’t understand….”

Me:      “Your agency, and ABC Widgets, will track the campaign’s results, right?”

Caller:  “Uh…”

Me:      “So, in four months, or whenever, you should be able to tell me that, as a result of this campaign, the client’s sales went from ‘here’ to ‘here’. That they increased by ‘this much’. Then the campaign could be a cover story.”

Caller:  “But it’s a great campaign. Why isn’t that worth writing about?”

Me:      “Because it’s not a great campaign if you can’t show increased sales.”

Caller:  “Oh. OK. As soon as we have those results, I’ll call you back.”

No one has ever called back. And as it’s not likely that they passed on the chance for a cover story, I have to assume that I didn’t hear from them again because their campaigns didn’t generate results. They may have won awards, and the teen-agers producing them thought they were really cool and were able to persuade the client of same, but the work didn’t work.

It should be obvious to everyone that if anything a business does doesn’t contribute in some way to increased profits, it shouldn’t be done. To that end, marketing directors have to say to ad agencies: “This is the plan, this is what it has to achieve, I’m going to pay for your ideas on how to best achieve this. Once I, and the rest of my staff, agree that your ideas are likely to increase sales, I’m going to pay you to provide the required services.”

Marketing directors and company owners should not say: “This is the company whose products represent my life’s work. These are the products whose sales support the jobs of dozens of employees. I’m putting all of our prospects in your hands. I hope you can pull it off.”

payfor1At the same time, a marketing director or company president who expects a certain result, and who’s confident that what his agency recommends will work to increase sales, but who then balks at the cost of the work, is doomed. Ditto with company owners who think that flash-in-the-pan campaigns will produce results. This is especially true with print campaigns, where advertisers often cancel a campaign if one or two insertions didn’t generate immediate results. You want results, you have to commit for the long haul. You want more revenue, you have to open your wallet. You get what you pay for.

I thought everyone knew this. Zyman says that that is most definitely not the case. And that it’s time for everyone to think again. Because, he says, advertising is a science. And those who fail to master that science, and properly practice it, are going to go out of business—along with their clients.

On the Value of Advertising

Blitz Magazine, March 2000

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As soon as the first issue of Blitz came out, back in 1997, I started getting calls asking, “Do you know what the Canadian advertising industry is worth, or do you know anyone who does?” Ever the professional, my response was always “Nope”.

Now we know. The Institute of Canadian Advertising finally had KPMG conduct a study (based on 1997 stats). The results surprised everyone, including industry insiders.

The study reports absolute expenditures of $14.5 billion. This is over 1% of Canada’s GDP and comes from industries and organizations that use advertising, the companies that create it, the media that carry it, and related industries.

As Institute of Canadian Advertising president Rupert Brendon notes: “This is a lot of money circulating through the economy, especially when you add the multiplier effect that kicks in as advertising helps businesses grow.”

The advertising sector accounts for 212,000 jobs, or 1.7% of all jobs in Canada—139,000 in direct employment, 73,000 in related services. The value-added to the Canadian economy is $11.4 billion—$7.5 billion in employment income and $3.9 billion in business income (direct and indirect). This is greater than the financial contribution from such sectors as insurance, real estate, accounting and legal services.

“It also matters where the money goes,” says Brendon. “For a lot of Canadian industry, a high proportion of the money leaks off-shore. In the advertising sector, 80% stays at home. Advertising is a driving force in the economy. This news, from respected and independent sources, shows that advertising is far more significant and positive than some detractors would have us believe.”

Note the qualifier. It’s funny how people in the ad biz are always on the defensive, apologetic for a whiff of shadiness hovering over their industry—the perception that there’s something low-rent about the business.

At a school reunion a few years ago, I asked someone what had become of a classmate. She replied: “Oh, he did really well at Yale, but then he went into advertising.” You tell someone you’re writing an annual report, they say ‘Oh!’. That you’re working on an ad campaign for toilet paper, they say ‘Oh.’ As if you’ve fallen from the rank of Chief Surgeon to that of Hospital Janitor. 

Advertising is essential—businesses can’t compete, or survive, without it. But it is interesting to note that even those in the industry don’t understand how important it is. You would be astonished if I told you who has told my sales staff that they never advertise and that they rely on word of mouth to generate new business and stay ahead of their competition. These are people whose incomes, and those of their employees, are derived solely from creating or selling advertising and related services. It’s inexplicable. A head-shaker.

Perhaps KPMG should study this perception—that advertising is somehow inferior as a career choice, a communications medium and a business practice. Clarity would be helpful.