Stay away!
Rushika Bhatia

Stay away!

Advertising and PR. So close, the two of them. So close, and yet so far apart. But perhaps that’s for the best, as experts advise that these two disciplines are best kept separate.

Stay away!

While it might not be the oldest profession, advertising may well have come second. Or third, some argue – right after public relations.

Be that as it may, what they set out to do is not all that different, so you might think that by now the people in advertising and PR would have developed a level of mutual respect and trust.

Fat chance, we say. Neither group will ever find a way to make peace with the other. Why, in just the last few weeks, I’ve been at several meetings with my advertising and PR buddies and was simply amazed at their inability to work together. While it’s sometimes easy to blame such differences on personality conflicts, I’m convinced that there is something inherently incompatible about the two disciplines. Maybe it’s time we paid attention to the disconnect and tried to do something about it.

It may seem like heresy in some circles, but I see advertising and public relations as, well, the same but different. It’s not a popular view, but it’s one I believe should be considered carefully in this fast-paced (and overly fragmented) world.

I should say at the outset that – as is typically the case in every industry – the leaders in these respective fields are as good as it gets. They are superb communicators and immensely persuasive. In the last century, PR mostly tried to influence newspaper coverage and daily theatrical promotions. Edward Bernays became the father of modern PR when he designed a structured publicity campaign for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes American tour in 1915, and he worked his magic with many leading brands, including General Motors and Procter & Gamble.

Advertising doesn’t have one such founding person who can walk away with all the credit. (Why is that not a surprise?) John Powers was regarded as the first copywriter superstar in 1880, when he was hired by John Wanamaker, and was later recognised as “the father of honest advertising”. J Walter Thompson brought us the account executive in 1885. And Ernest Elmo Calkins introduced us to the role of art direction in 1895. (You have to wonder what fun the clients, copywriters and account executives had without art directors for 10 years!)

The luminaries of the world of PR and advertising had a lot in common. They were supreme salesmen in an era of mass marketing, who skilfully crafted messages – by whatever means necessary – to influence behaviour and ultimately sell products. This was the era of true marketing partnerships. Both PR and advertising people sat together in the big meetings with their clients, where they solved problems, grew business and built long-term relationships. Both of these marketing disciplines were getting clear direction from one source and using whatever tools they had available to solve the same problem.

A lot has changed since then. Yes, business has become increasingly complex. Organisations are more bureaucratic. People move faster. Consumers have more choices and more power. Don’t those argue for an even more concerted effort to simplify and improve internal and external communications? Unfortunately, for many companies, exactly the opposite is happening.

I see only more turf wars between PR and advertising inside many companies as people jockey for positions and budgets. PR falls into two broad areas, corporate and product, which are very different animals and need to be treated differently. As a subset of marketing, advertising reports to the CMO. But typically PR does not.

In my brave new world, I’m advocating splitting the PR function, with specialists in corporate PR and product PR. The product people should report to marketing. What I’m suggesting is controversial and uncomfortable to many CMOs and CEOs, but the idea has taken hold with great success in several small and midsize companies. I think it’s now time for other companies, particularly those with huge budgets, to embrace this idea. Take a fresh look at our new reality, and let the controversy commence.

This column is written by a real CMO who prefers to remain anonymous. Wonder why that’s so!