October 27, 2018

Who are PR Firms Racing With?

Taking on video, content marketing, social media management, creative work et al – once the exclusive domain of creative and digital agencies – PR agencies today compete not just with one another but creative and digital specialists too

Every once in a while, we see a thoughtful ad and fall in love with the creativity of the creators, who more often than not are sitting in an ad agency, thinking about the next big idea. That’s where the big ideas have traditionally come from, right? But nowadays, the geniuses behind such ideas might well be sitting in a Public Relations agency, which are customarily expected to just circulate these ads to the media. For example, the viral digital video for Oyo Rooms featuring Manoj Bajpayee and Raveena Tandon was not created by Oyo’s creative agency, but by a PR agency called Boring Brands. It is an eye-opener on the fast expanding universe of Public Relations firms and how more and more advertisers are seeking solutions from them in formats which were not the norm earlier.

Nitin Mantri, Group CEO, Avian WE and also the President of Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI) says, “Today, with the advent of social media and Internet penetration, PR agencies are not restricted to working with traditional media. PR has moved way beyond just getting coverage for a client in five big publications. The need of the hour is integrated campaigns – on social media, on digital, creating good content through story-telling, etc. It includes the effective use of multimedia, videos, infographics, creative, etc. If we have to do all that, then we have to have people with those skillsets within the agency itself.”

So, it is not surprising that PR firms like Avian WE today have added a host of new verticals to include designers, website developers, creative heads, digital experts, people who do social media management and in some cases even media planners to manage the online space.

Rakesh Thukral, MD, Edelman India, whose company gets 15%-20% of its business from non-traditional PR, says, “Nowadays, a good or bad brand experience is shared instantly by people on social media which has become the new channel of communication; and technology has enabled direct engagement with consumers. Voice, creative and video have thus become important and it is imperative that companies like ours use these new channels. So, we are curating a talent pool with these skills and to help us do the story-telling with these new elements. Today, about 20%-25% of our workforce is from these new domains, like creative, digital, planning, research experts, content specialists and sector experts. Our offering is earned-centric at the core, and social by design. For our corporate work as well, digital reputation goes hand in hand with media relations.” So the need of the hour in PR firms is a workforce which understands the new business and can do the story-telling using these new elements well.


In an era where Game of Thrones is the most awaited series and 70 million viewers watched the FIFA World Cup on SonyLiv, traditional media alone is not equipped to push the boundaries of the PR industry which is estimated to grow to a size of Rs 2000 crore by 2020. The question is, has the digital push made the PR agencies much more important in the marketing ecosystem today, or has it just added to its challenges?

Amit Misra, CEO, MSL Group says, “We are competing with the whole bunch of non-traditional PR players as opposed to the past. This includes content marketing firms, digital marketing firms and even creative firms. I think the boundaries of creativity are definitely blurring and nobody can say that only one profession has the right to create, broadcast or amplify a story. For instance, we have a 25-member creative team and 100-plus people in Digital. We are perhaps the first PR agency to have invested in a super-specialized skillset like a Chief Video Officer two years ago. Today, that part of our business is growing by leaps and bounds. We want to own conversations, and conversations are driven by visual content today as opposed to just the old traditional long form content, because nobody has time for that.”

Giving an example of a video made by a PR agency which became quite popular, Tejal Daftary, Founder & CEO, Alphabet Media says, “We ran a ‘Colours of life’ campaign for our client Tangerine, which was entering the textile market. To highlight their expertise in colours, we identified eight social media influencers in different fields and shot their take. This digital campaign was completely handled by us, from strategy to scripting to video direction, execution and finally putting it up on social media. And it really went viral.”

Kunal Kishore, Founder, Value 360 Communications, one of the younger and successful agencies of today, says, “When we started off, we worked with small companies who through the course of the journey became big – examples are Snapdeal, Shopclues and Paytm. Once our work was out in the open for everyone to see, even the bigger companies wanted to work with us. Something similar will happen when the big companies realize that a PR firm is doing some phenomenal work on the video side. The initial experimentation and investment will be done by start-ups, but the bigger ones are bound to follow when they see that a certain PR agency has given a brand a viral video and earned so much popularity for them without spending a penny.”


Earlier, PR was a connect between an organization with its public through media. Back then, an agency just had to get a handful of journalists to write about a particular brand to influence millions of consumers, but today, even consumers are creating opinions about those brands through Twitter, Facebook, etc. Media can no more control the narrative; it is a lot more democratized and thus PR agencies need to rework their strategies. For example, create relatable stories on social media to get the consumer to share the content. That way, he/she becomes not just a reader but also a distributor of the content. So the big task for the PR industry today is to spin the right stories by investing in verticals that were earlier considered territories of digital and creative agencies.

Nikhil Dey, President, Genesis Burson-Marsteller says, “We do lots of videos for social media. We even make television commercials for our clients like Dalda, Ford Figo, Kohler, etc. But I am not trying to get into the advertising business. My job is to help a client in story-telling. Now, if that particular client has worked with my team and finds their creativity and their capabilities interesting, and want them to create an ad, I am not going to say no. But, am I trying to build an advertising agency? The answer is ‘no’.”

At most award functions today, it is the advertising agencies that are sending maximum entries under the PR category, so much so that last year, the definition of PR was changed at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity as communication agencies – read PR firms – were being overshadowed by creative shops in nearly every category in 2016. The revised definition brings the spotlight on ‘building trust’ and ‘earned media’.

Amit Misra says he may consider giving that a spin by entering categories meant for creative agencies this year, especially now that boundaries are overlapping, with many PR agencies doing the work of a creative agency for advertisers.

Public Relations veteran Dilip Cherian, Founding Partner & Group Chairman, Perfect Relations says, “Today, if a story demands some video content, we shall no more blindly assign it to the creative agency if it is going as part of earned media, which is less stylized usually. I have a large design team today that can create it for me. For example, a company may have a creative/digital agency on board and we the PR agency may have to work on a Twitter campaign for the client which may or may not be linked with what the creative agency is running. In such an event, we would much rather get our own team to put together something and not run to the creative agency for the video. However, it would be wrong to say that we are doing the work of a creative agency here.”

While asserting that videos created by PR agencies have not yet reached the level of sophistication seen in those done by creative agencies, Archana Jain, MD, PR Pundit says, “While we may be bringing in the idea, not many clients may be keen on letting a PR firm execute it completely. We could pull off a base level or a simple campaign. But, if it requires very high quality, it is best that a creative agency does it. We are happy to partner them in this. It is Digital where the lines have blurred majorly. We are definitely competing with them.”


Many PR agencies want to build their video capabilities to provide an option to their advertiser-client. Many of them are catering to smaller advertisers who, unlike big brands, do not have specialized agencies to do different work; they rely solely on a PR agency to execute their ads as well as the publicity later. Then it falls on the PR agencies to either work on their video projects in-house or outsource it to a smaller creative agency. More and more PR agencies are rising up to the challenge today. However, others believe that PR agencies should just stick to their core expertise and leave the task of making videos to experts within creative and digital agencies and production houses.

Says Kunal Kishore, “PR firms doing quality work can start competing with all the bigger advertising firms, which usually create the campaign and then outsource the filming bit to a production house. Why can’t PR agencies do the same – ideate and then outsource the production to a company like Chrome Films? Slowly, the agency will be able to actually drive strategic intervention in the conversation with the brand marketer, that will take the lead.” Value 360 Communications independently worked on creating a music video for the launch of Tiger Shroff’s new clothing brand Prowl, without the help of a creative agency.


With the universe of PR expanding, it will be interesting to see if PR agencies move from earned media to also own paid media soon. Industry experts say that it is happening at some levels now, but largely the focus has continued to be in the earned space. Earlier, when PR agencies were only working around traditional media, they would write advertorials, but rely on their ad agency partner to buy it for them. Today, more and more agencies are coming forward to say that they are willing to buy online space, online media for an advertiser; some others are doing content partnerships with newspapers and their digital versions and also negotiating the costs for it.

Nitin Mantri says, “Running a digital or social campaign is not just organic, but also inorganic to some level. We buy media on channels like Facebook, Google and Times of India. The client needs to be progressive to think about it and some of them are, there has also been a cultural shift.” Kunal Kishore adds, “We are not buying spots on Times Now or Star Plus, but engaging with influencers and even paying them. Earlier, we never paid writers for content as PR firms took pride in earning media. But in today’s noisy world, sometimes you need to shout for people to hear. And that shouting is that initial paid push that you want to do. So PR firms buying media in a big way is going to become a reality soon.”


The bottomline is, today most PR agencies have a creative specialist or a creative leader and departments that can do the job of thinking up creative ideas for their client or even executing them, while production units make videos and social media cells effectively circulate content on social media. But the big question is, why would a brand come to a PR agency for work which creative agencies have been doing for decades, and where they have already established their supremacy?

Jaideep Shergill, Co-founder, Pitchfork Partners says, “While it’s true that ad agencies have historically produced videos, in the digital age developing such content has become easier due to tools that are cost-effective and easy to access. The focus has shifted to creating targeted messages for different audiences, and the key to success is telling stories that compel audiences to pay attention and to share. In that context, PR agencies have the edge. It’s about who can tell the story the best. This is why many agencies have invested in video talent, studios, writers, etc.”

Says Prema Sagar, Founder of Genesis & Vice Chairman of Genesis Burson-Marsteller, “It’s not about having an edge. It is about creativity, that can be present anywhere, and not just in a creative or digital agency. It is also about who understands your brand story better and can deliver persuasive story-telling for you. Story-telling has been the domain of the PR agency. Earlier, the mediums for story-telling were limited, so expectations from the firm were also limited. With time, several mediums have been added to the spectrum, so the scope of work has increased.”

Valerie Pinto, CEO, Weber Shandwick, a company which gets 40% of its business from non-traditional PR, also feels PR firms are better equipped to make videos today “Because the videos we do are to tell the story of a company from a third party lens which PR has been the custodians of forever, unlike what an ad agency does; i.e., just create an ad. An ad talks about the product, but our work will talk about relevance of that product in the consumer’s life. An ad is created by the brand. Advertising firms make brand stories while we make real stories. Today, we are adding a creative lens and tools are available to help us do better and generate targeted outcomes impacting business results.”

Nitin Mantri elaborates, “We have won pitches against digital arms of creative agencies and gone on to win awards for that work. Right now, I am running a social media digital campaign for an FMCG company that had approached us for a pitch. When I went for the pitch, I had a digital and advertising agency pitching against me, because they are doing the same thing. So, we are competing against them. We are working together with them, where we manage a lot of influencer relations but the advertising agencies still manage the creative part of the social outreach. Only in some cases do we compete because we can also do the same thing today.”

Mantri adds, “Digital firms are great at technology; advertising firms are good at creative while PR firms are great at engagement. And what do you need in the online world today – engagement. If you get the right engagement, the rest will follow. So, we are doing engagement, that’s our key focus. And if we can add a creative element and a tech element to us, we are complete. We have everything.”


Media, ad agencies and then PR – this has been the pecking order as far as an advertiser’s budget allocation is concerned for a long time. But while the PR industry has taken it upon itself not to restrict work to their traditional ways and enter newer territories, are they being rewarded for it by advertisers, by increasing the budgets allocated to them? Prema Sagar responds, “It depends on the scope of work being managed by the agency. Since the scope of work has increased, so has the remuneration to match it.” But whether it will end up cannibalizing other agencies’ share or create space of its own, only time will tell.
‘Our video revenue touches $1 million’‘Budgets have grown where advertisers rely on PR agencies for digital promotion’
Madan Bahal, MD, Adfactors PR, the biggest PR agency in the country today, tells Neeta Nair that the digital push has not only redefined the PR space, but also managed to increase the budget allocations for the industry, with the video unit being a top grosser.

Read the complete here: https://www.impactonnet.com/cover-story/who-are-pr-firms-racing-with-6140.html