PR Goes Missing On The A-List

I always look forward to reading Advertising Age’s annual Agency A List, which calls out some of the best agencies regardless of discipline every year, and this year’s edition, released last month, was no exception.
The beautifully designed, thoughtfully reported feature anointed the ten-agency “A-List,” identified ten more “Agency Standouts,” shared ten more up-and-coming “Agencies to Watch,” and, finally, pointed out ten firms who were “Creativity Innovators of the Year.” There was also a “Media Agency of the Year,” a “Multicultural Agency of the Year” and an “International Agency of the Year.”
These 43 agencies have at least two things in common: They are all truly outstanding at what they do, and not one of them hails from a public relations heritage.
Put another way: A leading journal of marketing and media does not think a single PR firm rates in a 40-deep discussion of the best agencies regardless of discipline. Ouch.
That would seem to be a strong statement on PR’s perceived relevance in the marketplace.  Which is odd, given Ad Age’s own reporting has found spending on PR growing nearly twice as fast (7.4%) as spending on paid media (3.9%), which makes sense given how critical earned media and third-party credibility is in this age of marketing-message bombardment.
So what gives? Does Ad Age just think PR’s momentum is happening in spite of a lack of truly outstanding firms? Does this highly respected journal believe we’re all just a bunch of bumbling flacks getting lucky?  I doubt it.
The first culprit, I think, is our industry’s legendary inability to apply our craft to ourselves. Is it really that hard to describe building and defending corporate and brand reputations?  Apparently so. After all, the industry is currently dealing with another symptom of this issue in the form of the wholly ridiculous New York State attempt to classify all PR work as “lobbying,” which is just the latest in a long line of severe misunderstandings about what most PR professionals do every day.
But, to be fair, what PR people do every day is changing dramatically. Yes, we’re engaging the media, crafting the message and managing issues and crises, as always, but we’re increasingly creating content, getting more input than ever into operations and playing a critical role in most integrated-marketing teams who understand their programs cannot succeed in the absence of earned media and the engagement that comes with it.
By nature, great PR is driven by relevance and timeliness. It works powerfully in an intended moment, but it has a lasting impact. The ultimate work product tends to be the engagement flowing from whatever the agency made, and not necessarily the creation itself. Which is one reason why it probably is hard to evaluate in the context of hundreds of agencies all putting their best work forward.
There’s no doubt that there are firms doing this work exceptionally well. It’s on us, as an industry, to do a better job telling our story in a way that makes the value we create apparent.

By Bryan Specht | President, Olson Engage