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Volvo hires media buying agency to handle online PR: not such a bad idea?

Internet World attracts 22,000 visitors, online PRs debate the future, Volvo puts its digital PR faith in a media buying agency – and Gerry Brown and Andrew Smith offer some solutions at a Digital Masterclass on June 16th 2009.

It has been a busy few weeks, so this blog post covers a lot of ground from Internet World, to the recent NMK online PR debate and the repercussions of Volvo’s decision to hire Mindshare to handle digital PR.

First up, Gerry Brown (*), Bloor Research’s Lead Analyst on Digital Marketing, reports that the recent Internet World show at Earl’s Court saw a 26pc increase in visitor numbers.

As Gerry says: “Over 22,000 seats were filled in free seminars and keynote presentations. Such were the queues that probably another 8,000 were on their tippy-toes outside the theatres struggling to get a glimpse of the presenters and pick up a few words of wisdom. Interesting. Hardly what you would expect for a digital marketing event in these difficult times. After all, marketing is the first department to get cut in a recession, right?”

Right. The fact is, marketing budgets are being cut across the board – but digital is the one area to benefit. A recent survey from Forrester showed that 60pc of marketing budget holders expect to fund increases in interactive marketing expenditure by taking it away from traditional marketing techniques. And the biggest losers? Direct mail and print advertising (both newspapers and magazines).

Those PR folk who still think print coverage is more valuable than online ought to take note of this latter point – as print circulations decline and advertising revenues shrink, the amount of editorial real estate available becomes smaller – and as media consumption patterns continue to shift in favour of digital, then the default focus on print based media relations becomes even harder to justify.

So the reasons for the crowds at the Internet World show are not that difficult to explain. However, as Gerry Brown points out:  “Some might argue that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and many left being converted to the idea that digital marketing is ‘the next big thing’ without really understanding the how, when, where or how.”

Which neatly brings me on to the recent NMK event, which debated the question “What Happens To Online PR?”  Numerous people have already blogged about the proceedings – however, the thing that struck me most about the evening was that out of the 85 or so attendees, there were – at most – two client side representatives. For me, this is the key question: what do clients actually make of the whole online/digital/social media PR situation?

Thus Volvo’s decision to hire a media planning agency (Mindshare) to handle its entire digital PR and social media strategy couldn’t be more timely.

This has apparently set “alarm bells ringing” at PR firms up and down the land claims PR Week. So should PR firms be worried? Yes and no. In my experience, media buying agencies have access to much better data on which to base their approach (certainly in the FMCG arena, and increasingly in business to business) – I also think their planning skills are generally better than PR firms (perhaps because they are using better data?). Does that mean that all online PR work should go to media buying firms? No. But Volvo’s decision does give an insight into the kinds of skills, expertise and assets that clients value. And it is up to PR firms to realign their skillsets and resources around what clients really value. (Having spent a week in New York, the phrase “digital land grab” seems to be one of the most overused on both sides of the Atlantic – but PR firms generally aren’t the ones doing the grabbing).

As Duncan Forrester, Volvo’s UK Head of PR (and the man who hired Mindshare)  said: “It’s about partnering with an agency who really understand the Volvo brand, its customers as well as the online audiences and influencers. It’s also about partnering with the right agency who can deliver on the brief.”

And there’s the nub of it.  Clients need people who understand their business (and their customers) – and they will gravitate towards that expertise and experience wherever they can find it.
(*) Commercial footnote: Those client side PRs and marketers who are looking for a way to bridge business understanding with digital marketing expertise may be interested in a Digital Masterclass that Gerry Brown and myself will be presenting in Central London on Tuesday 16th June 2009.  There are still some places available, so click here for more information.

7 replies on “Volvo hires media buying agency to handle online PR: not such a bad idea?”

Interesting round-up. I’ve been too busy to blog my full thoughts since the NMK debate, maybe I’ll get round to it over the weekend.

I do think PR folk are feeling vulnerable and defensive about this. Marketing communications is only part of what we do. Proper PR has a far broader and more important remit. When our client contact is a corporate comms person they are already fighting this internal battle for us. They KNOW they must be the ones to lead on this, because you can’t trust marketing to be the guardians of corporate reputation.

When our client contact is a marketing person it is far harder as they are being ‘seduced’ by the claims of SEO/digital people, who are actually trying to do something different to what we are.

One of our most recent client wins was actually from a company where the marketing department had appointed a digital/social media/conversation agency, until the PR team saw what they were trying to do and stopped it happening.

Thanks for the comment Stuart. I think proper PR “ought” to have a broader and more important remit – but more often than not, it doesn’t. I think the PR industry generally continues to shoot itself in the foot. I think the NMK debate showed that there is a small, but growing number of people who are really making some effort to steer PR in the right direction – but while we agency types are all furiously agreeing with each other, I still sense that the client side people (the ones who pay our wages) remain unconvinced. That to me is the big issue – the education job is massive – and probably painful. I entirely agree that the notion of reputation management is key – however, I suspect many clients see it a bit like insurance – they only worry about their reputation once they are they’ve lost it….

Client-side there’s a thirst for metrics and measurables that many PR agencies have been slow to adapt. I’ve lost count of the amount of times agency folk have tried to apply AVE to the web.

Media agencies have been pretty good at using software to value influence, which leads to better justification for the kinds of engagement programmes that really only comms people should be leading.

Hmm – not sure about the better approach from Volvo’s new online PR provider.

In 10 years hacking I’ve written about cars precisely once – a feature on company cars for an HR title about six years ago.

Curious, then that I’ve started receiving one or two press releases a day from Volvo in the last few weeks.

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