The Social Media Space: Advertising vs. PR

I posted the letter below in response to an Oct. 13, 2010, Ad Age article by Tom Martin titled “Why Ad Agencies Should Own Social Media.” If you’ve got a point of view on this topic, please join the conversation by commenting at the end of this blog post. We’d like to hear from you. Thanks!

Without a doubt, expanding bandwidth and the socialization of the Web have forced a blurring of the lines between the established marketing disciplines. That, together with the ongoing demise of traditional media outlets, has compelled ad agencies to re-focus their disruptive creativity on the Web’s free and shared spaces – social media. At the same time, PR pros are strategically complementing earned approaches to online engagement with paid, online search and display ads. Digital has caused us to reconsider all the old assumptions about who does what, and it’s got everyone lathered up in a frenzied land grab.

As an optimist, I’ll bet there’s enough work, talent and energy out there for everyone to get a slice of the ever-expanding pie. I doubt any single communications discipline will ever be able to claim outright, exclusive ownership of the social space. But for either PR or advertising to be successful in social media, it’s going to have to learn a thing or two from the other.

Advertising has the corner on creativity. But — Old Spice notwithstanding — it still has to figure out how to shift from a one-way broadcast to a two-way or multi-party conversation. It’s got to learn how to seamlessly, unobtrusively seep into an existing dialogue. And it needs to bring down the high cost and time of production if it’s going to compete.

Public relations has the relationship and relevance parts nailed. And it’s got a head start in influencer marketing from years of pitching reporters to retell their clients’ stories. But PR needs to borrow the best creative, disruptive talents from advertising if it’s going to get its clients’ messages heard above the online din. And it needs to more rapidly make the leap from words to images. In a world of hyperlinks and microblogs, text is shrinking and visual storytelling is king.

It’s doubtful that any single discipline will own social media. Good ideas can come from anywhere these days. Besides, the social Web belongs to the people, right? But agencies – PR and advertising, alike — will fail if they don’t quickly adopt a more nimble, responsive, audience-centered approach, in step with the new ways people consume content and engage online.