My interview last week on the “persoenlich” portal has generated some interesting reactions. That PR colleagues and advertising agency friends felt moved to comment on the line separating their respective disciplines was an eye opener for me. Some thought PR was and always will be PR, others maintained advertising continues to think in terms of ads and commercials instead of integration. It seems that looking into the neighbor’s backyard from the comfort of one’s own continues to be the rule. Except that the hedge separating the two – to stay with green terminology – tends to obscure reality.

It’s not about PR vs. advertising – success is determined by communication that brings benefits

The main point I made was that communication’s playing field and thus, that of the agency market, whether PR or advertising, is changing. Emerging business models of traditional media and the effectiveness of dialogue and participation-based communication are pushing providers of a certain size on toward convergence. Convergence doesn’t mean PR mutating into advertising or advertising strapping on PR. What it does mean is agreement on the need to create trust based on beneficial content as the basis for dialogue, participation and collaboration – and the results they produce. Communication is successful to the extent that it benefits the given target groups. Its success depends on context and target group proximity. Or, expressed in the language of today’s business models, from merely transmitting content to dialogue, from stakeholder management to meaningful commitment, from sender-oriented messages to benefit-focused content, from copy to visuals and to video.

Media convergence: an opportunity for every communications agency

This sums up the huge opportunity awaiting agencies, regardless of their core discipline. Farner is, of course, a PR agency first and foremost. But we are moving at the same time toward being a complete agency, in line with the aforementioned trends. Within the framework of paid-for, earned, shared and owned content we find ourselves moving toward a 360 degree model. Old-discipline borderlines, when integration once meant combining advertising, PR, event-based communication and below-the-line measures, are fading away. Today we act whatever the channel, entering into a dialogue with anyone, at any time – always in the appropriate tonality. The basis for this is a sustainable central idea.

Convergence preoccupies the world’s communications industry 

At this point a glance at the PR giants’ battle for concept leadership would not be amiss. A couple of weeks ago one of the world’s biggest PR agencies, Fleishman-Hillard, announced its new strategy and positioning. The New York Times headlined it: “The new look of Public Relations”. The article’s defining sentence read ‘The firm will be the most complete communications company in the world”. Fleishman-Hillard CEO Dave Senay contributed sound bites ranging from “serve consumers with content worthy of sharing”, to “recruitment of non-traditional talent”, “channel agnostic” and “work across paid, owned, earned and shared media”. A reaction from David Edelman, global CEO of the eponymous agency, wasn’t long in coming. In his blog he claimed that strategies aimed at turning PR agencies into one-stop shops, as devoted to advertising as to their public relations legacy, are misplaced. He went on to say that the market is anyway shifting toward PR because it draws on more than a set of tools or tactics, it is a mindset, a way of thinking.

Agile agencies are the winners

I don’t presume to be able to divine the winners of the battle of opinions raging among global PR agencies. But it does seem that in fact, Edelman and Fleishman-Hillard think alike – although they express themselves differently.

Myself, I firmly believe that the key to success lies in establishing trust, making interaction and participation part of the message, that we have to create content relevant and useful to the recipient, whether consumer, activist, voter, investor or employee, and that an agency’s services must conform to global trends as well as hyper-local market conditions and existing brand positioning.

No one today has the ultimate answer. I do believe, however, that communications agencies that learn from and absorb most quickly today’s rapidly game-changing conditions, that are able to organize in-house thinking, models, processes and procedures, talents and teams accordingly to generate communication solutions commensurate with the new reality, will gain the lion’s share of the market.

We’re working on it. As are certain advertising, web and marketing agencies.