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Claire Beale on Advertising

PR and adland - it's an unlikely marriage, but it could just work

Think of PR and you think of oleaginous suits and women with too much fake tan, whose opening gambit to the cynical old journalist on the other end of the phone typically goes something like this: "Hiit'sCamillafromExcitablehowareyouI'vegotastoryaboutpharmaplasticsIjustknowyou'lllove," completely oblivious to the fact that they've just called the editor of the Bizarre column when they're right on a deadline.

OK, so that's a bloated stereotype, but there's no doubt about it: for an industry dedicated to making its paymasters look good, the PR business has an unfortunate image problem.

It's a bit like ad agencies: they are notoriously bad at advertising and marketing themselves. Despite the best efforts of the Institute of Public Relations, PR comes somewhere beneath estate agents and used car salesmen in the dodgy job stakes, although the rise of the web and the explosion in user-generated content means PR has never been a more vital weapon in the marketer's armoury.

Most journalists I know grimace if you mention PR. And not because we little men, under-paid and undervalued, like to have a lower life form to kick down at, but because too many PR people aren't good enough at their jobs. (I say that after 20 years as a journalist, and one generally predisposed towards the PR profession: I live with one).

Ask your average adlander, and I suspect you'd get similar feedback, though based on rather less experience. So the idea of marrying the taught advertising planning disciplines with PR strategies seems an unholy union.

But that's just what the country's best-known PR company, Freud, is about to do. Freud is sniffing round the DFGW ad agency and, at the time of writing, preparing a formal bid.

Anyone who knows DFGW and its patchy performance over recent years will know that "bid" probably means taking on a few salaries and not much else. No ad execs will get fat from this. DFGW might have been worth an earn-out deal or two a decade or so ago, but it missed its moment and has withered to the country's 46th biggest agency.

So this is not a grand union of communications heavyweights. Really, with DFGW, Freud is buying a couple of good people: joint MDs Tom Vick and Hugh Cameron, both good strategic thinkers and nice blokes in a market where there's not enough of either. And it will get a handful of small-fry clients: the British Red Cross and Cow and Gate.

Trouble is, PR execs and ad execs aredifferent animals. The PR industry has no ultimate control over how their "story" reaches consumers; the ad industry knows that once the ad has been signed off, that is exactly what consumers will see.

On the other hand, ad execs might be used to compromising on the size of the logo because the client wants it to be bigger, but I can't imagine many would be prepared to compromise their big idea because the PR exec believes Wayne Rooney will get more headlines than Stephen Fry. And the cynic in me wonders why, if it's such a great idea, the big holding companies have not knocked their PR and ad agencies closer together; yes, there is inter-group integration, but nothing that goes this far. Mind you, adland is riddled with fiefdoms and internal politics, so perhaps that's not so surprising.

For all this, joining advertising and PR does make an awful lot of sense, on paper at least. Freud wants to integrate the advertising and PR planning functions to offer clients a one-stop strategic shop.

To migrate advertising's forensic consumer understanding to underpin the PR strategic approach will enhance campaign effectiveness. And building the potential for PR exposure into the DNA of an ad campaign will stretch budgets and boost standout. The first real test will be how Freud PRs this new approach to adland and clients. Watch this space.

* TALKING OF unions, the ad industry is finally coming together behind a concerted campaign to protect advertising freedoms. Just days after the ban on so-called junk food advertising came in, Campaign magazine launched an initiative aimed at ending the relentless attacks on advertising freedoms in Britain.

The campaign has the backing of the Advertising Association, the ad agency trade body the IPA, and the client trade body ISBA. Core to the campaign is an on-line petition calling on the government to recognise the importance of the advertising industry to the UK economy and to resist further restrictions to responsible advertising.

To add your support, sign the petition on brandrepublic.com.

* AND TALKING of unions, part three: RIP United. Or HHCL, as was. Or Red Cell, as was. Or Conquest. You can't blame adland obituary writers for wondering quite which company's passing to mourn, after WPP finally called time last week on the agency most recently known as United London. Few companies have been through as many identity changes.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that the agency that required such regular reinvention, finally spluttered its last after a dismal couple of years, characterised by the disastrous loss of the £80m Sky ad business.

What is surprising about United's demise is that it's a WPP company. WPP is one of the stronger global communications groups and is supposedly master builder of international agency brands. And its chief, Sir Martin Sorrell, is not a man likely to accept failure lightly.

United was designed (as much from expediency as choice) as a mini-international network, offering high-end creativity through the now fashionable micro-network model, with a small number of boutique offices in key regions around the world.

That's a niche the mighty WPP desperately needs to squeeze into. The United idea was - or is, for there are still a handful of United offices dotted around the world - to give WPP a creative hot-shop, capable of playing against the likes of Mother in the UK or Crispin Porter in the US.

So the theory of United has real logic, particularly when you consider the rest of the WPP creative agency portfolio: Young & Rubicam, Grey, JWT, Ogilvy. International behemoths, they are amongst the biggest agencies in the world.

But this type of agency model - the 250-country network - has never looked more of a busted flush: expensive, unwieldy, unfashionable in many of the more developed markets, and increasingly unnecessary.

So United could have worked. It might still work, though I doubt it, particularly without a London office. The global chief, the charismatic and unpredictable Andy Berlin is likely to be out of contract by the end of the year. Does anyone expect him to re-sign? As the closest thing United has to a creative talisman, his departure would likely sound the death-knell for the whole United brand, even though Berlin was never a particularly visible network head.

Will Sir Martin Sorrell admit he couldn't pull the boutique model off and retrench behind his amorphous networks? Sorrell is not a man to admit defeat, but United might just have out-manoeuvred him.


Apparently there are people out there who pay good money (real money) to watch their avatar watch a porn movie on a minute screen in a seedy cinema in Second Life. Clearly the fantasy world has very real commercial potential.

So perhaps it's no wonder adland also gets excited about Second Life. A number of agencies now have virtual offices there and advertisers are also piling in. But while punters seem happy to pay for porn, there's a swell of resistance from Second Lifers to the commercial invasion.

So full marks to Ogilvy for finding a brand that's right on brief for the Second Life audience: Adventure Ecology, a charity set up to educate young people about climate change. Last week Ogilvy struck a deal with Second Life real-estate mogul Anshe Chung for permission to flood Second Life. Avatars found themselves knee-deep in water, in a representation of what could happen in First Life unless we act against climate change.

It's a great example of an agency using Second Life thoughtfully rather than just riding the wave of hype.