Traditional PR firms are missing an opportunity to expand their businesses and the boundaries of their remits with global clients, and leaving serious money on the table, by failing to integrate the creative discipline into their business model.

I attribute this failure of vision to the same fear of change that held back traditional ad agencies for years as they kept media, digital, content creation, data and analytics and other disciplines in silos. Even as holding companies merged those agency silos into massive “integrated” networks, the same silo mentality has held sway inside the PR agency sense of purpose.

Speaking broadly, ad agencies and PR firms offer two distinct products. Ad agencies produce tangible assets (creative ideas, expressed as TV ads, digital OOH, online videos, etc.) delivered directly to the consumer. PR agencies create communications – sophisticated forms of messaging – and influence media intermediaries and decision-makers to frame the story that best serves the strategic goals of their client.  

Yes, the lines have blurred, and some PR firms offer creative services. Large PR shops like Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Golin, Rethink and Ketchum have won Cannes Lions, Clios, Effies and other awards, but the majority of this work generally comes from ad-hoc PR/ad agency partnership within holding companies.

Meanwhile, ad agencies have had great success generating earned media with their creative work. Agencies such as GUT, David, and Mischief produce work that is all-but-guaranteed to drive PR, exploiting all the modern platforms to impact culture. Look at the earned media value squeezed from Super Bowl campaigns in the months before and after the event.

If PR firms do not adapt more systematically by adding creative services, ad agencies will be positioned to steal some of that core work, which is why agencies are either buying or starting influencer marketing and social media assets and cutting entertainment deals with film, TV, media and content companies. Even content studios will be positioned to win PR work.

PR agencies are being held back because of their traditional organizational and operational structure. They don’t have a clear vision for how to integrate creative people into their teams or how to embed the creative discipline in their methodology.

I spoke about this issue with Gabriel Araujo, the brilliant Creative Director at Havas Lynx and founder & unlocker at Unlockers, former Global CCO of Ogilvy Social Lab. Gabriel says ad agencies have shifted from the creative content strategy to the content experience strategy because experiences don’t look or feel like ads and resonate with people more authentically. 

Ad agencies have an advantage over PR shops because of how they think, Gabriel says. Ad agencies generate an original creative idea, or a family of ideas, that serve as a hub into which myriad activations can be plugged in – social, experiential, digital, product placement, etc. Ad agencies have begun to invest heavily in tech and pursue product development, where the original creative idea can produce proprietary intellectual property and revenue streams that can be shared with the client. 


PR agencies are falling behind in creative innovation. But they have inherent assets that give them a competitive advantage – they know content by heart, they know how journalists and media gatekeepers think and how to place their clients on the national stage, Gabriel says.


I can add that PR agencies, by their nature and leadership, are able or willing to provide clearer ROI and data, and their day-to-day proximity to the CMO and CEO gives them great insights into the evolving challenges that are happening to clients in real time. Also, PR leaders are naturally better listeners, as many of them come from journalism backgrounds; agency leaders tend to lean heavily on their creative pitches and sometimes leave clients feeling as if they are being given solutions they don’t need.

I’ve also witnessed that PR firms are much more buttoned up. Frankly, agencies could benefit from that too. Pool tables and basketball hoops and skateboard-friendly spaces may be attractive to 20something employees but decision-making CMOs and CEOs value the practice of showing up on time, being serious and prepared for diving into the nuts and bolts of their business problems and opportunities.

But PR firms do overlap with ad agencies in one crucial discipline—strategy—since a client’s strategy must connect across every facet of marketing communications. If PR shops can learn how to fold in creatives from ad shops, digital and social media agencies, they can expand their offering to find the sweet spot where they can provide marketing communications across the entire ecosphere of their clients’ position in the global marketplace and culture.

By Sasha Martens