Rethinking integration: PR agencies roll with the changing tide

Just as marketers are increasingly asked to manage more channels, partners and technology, PR agencies are having to offer more complex, integrated, multi-channel communications and marketing services. Caitlin Salter talks to a few at the top of their game.

Providing an integrated strategy for clients differs from agency to agency. Digital and creative agencies are increasingly partnering up to unlock the full potential of both, with clients seeing streamlined processes and improved bottom lines. 

Director of boutique PR agency Campbell & Co, Vinny Sherry, says he’s seen the shift in the past decade from PR having a very specific place in the industry to becoming indispensable across the board. “We used to do the dark
arts in the background of campaigns, with messaging, and our currency was our relationships. That’s exploded now. On any given day, we might be managing a paid media partnership, working directly with influencers and weaving in an experiential element to a campaign, as well as developing earned strategies.”

Sherry says Campbell & Co still considers itself a PR-led agency, but the definition of PR has expanded. Content has now become a large part of their business and the agency offers clients content-creation services. 

Campbell & Co’s clients include big international brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Land Rover, clients with whom the agency can share deep knowledge about messaging and entering the New Zealand market. 

“For some of our bigger clients, we offer more than a PR agency – the offering is fully integrated,” says Sherry. “Translating big global campaigns into the New Zealand market doesn’t always work, because consumers are different here. Because we’re a smaller, independent agency, we can be nimble and help those brands
translate here really quickly.”

In 2023, Campbell & Co worked with FIFA Women’s World Cup, partnering with their internal communications team to provide a local perspective and PR. Sherry describes the FIFA model as complex and says they had previously largely used traditional PR, “but they came to us looking for a solution to a problem. We shot some content for them and worked with their existing ambassadors and influencers to look at the problem they were trying to solve. We figure out what the solution is first and wrap the delivery around that. There are, of course, elements of traditional earned PR in there; it’s all about leaning on a good story and relationships.”

On the other side of their business, Campbell & Co works with smaller New Zealand brands that require not just communications advice but the whole package. Sherry says they build into the business people who can offer the capabilities a client needs, resulting in seamless interactions with clients, who then don’t have to deal with multiple agencies to get a campaign off the ground. 

“What brands have now is a smorgasbord offering. The big agency model is there if they want it, but more and
more, bigger brands understand that there are really strong agencies that can sit alongside everyone. I see
a space for everyone in the market.”

It’s impossible to discuss integration in PR without discussing the next big frontier – the role of AI in campaigns and client relations. AI offers seemingly limitless opportunities to economise, whether that be putting together visual concepts for campaigns more quickly and in-house, or speeding up internal processes. 

Although Sherry says the volatility of it makes him somewhat nervous, he knows it’s unlikely to replace human thought anytime soon. “We’re in the game of human emotions, and computers can’t replace genuine human feelings just yet.”

Energi Advertising takes a similar approach to AI, and has started weekly training sessions for their staff to learn about how it can be positively incorporated into communications strategies. Managing Director, Louise Bentley, says AI isn’t going anywhere, so they want their staff to be prepared. 

“It’s possibly the most dangerous thing that has ever been created, but we’re embracing it. If we can create insights and content that’s more affordable for clients who are facing real problems, that’s a good thing.”

Bentley has seen the industry evolve over the years and although Adland looks different now, the constant
change really started gathering momentum during the digital disruption of two decades ago. “Formerly, the world was closed and the channels to get to consumers were through ad agencies,” she says. “Once the industry became democractised and the power was in the clients’ hands, the requirement for creative and strategy started eroding because of the migration in-house.”

Bentley says the industry worked to protect itself by rapidly upskilling – as seen in the continued rise of digital and social agencies – and is now going through the next phase of change brought on by the pandemic. As the
cost of shopping has increased, it has been passed on to customers who are also dealing with a cost-of-living
crisis, she says.

“That’s why the new hot place is integration. It was never about selling advertising, it was always about
selling a solution to a business problem, like acquiring new customers with a direct marketing campaign.”

During the May 2022 Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month, Energi launched a new campaign for Cystic Fibrosis New Zealand (CFNZ) called ‘Cruel Needs Kind’. As a charity, CFNZ did not have the large budget it needed to drum up awareness for its important cause.

Energi worked around this by creating a platform asking the industry for deliberate acts of kindness – donating expertise to put together a high-quality, multi-channel campaign. “That’s when integration becomes beyond a strategy – it becomes a passion project,” says Bentley.

In 2021, independent powerhouse Special announced the launch of Special PR as a creative-led PR solution. Managing Director, Kelly Grindle, says the indie agency was designed to be different from the start – all centred
on the belief that ‘earned thinking’ can travel through any channel. 

“A creative idea with talkability at its heart should hit the headlines, and it should also travel through the line, across digital, social, partner channels, paid placements and even into the retail environment,” he says.

Special PR uses its status as a ‘new’ agency to best serve its clients by focusing on the hyper-relevant, which Grindle believes gives them an advantage over some of the heritage agencies in the market. Although traditional PR can serve as acutely functional, widening the integration of a story can add more tone and personality to the output. 

“Integration allows us to produce work that’s reflective of a brand, rather than purely a communication touchpoint. It becomes so much richer and more impactful as you build a brand over time.”

Inserting the distinctive creative Special New Zealand is known for into the PR branch was integral from the start. The agency continues to expand its team by drawing on talent from experiential, content production and design to produce a well-rounded offering for their clients. 

Because Special PR belongs to a broader group, it can also offer seamless integration into the wider agency services of Special New Zealand. “It’s not surprising to continue pointing to the blurring of disciplines and the rise of digital, but that has offered PR an opportunity to demonstrate how a well-funded and targeted integrated campaign can generate commercial impact,” says Grindle.

“Historically, PR has been expected to build buzz and top-of-funnel awareness, but with many of our campaigns, we’re able to point to direct commercial impact or returns.”

In February 2023, Trade Me launched New Zealand’s first-ever entirely second-hand biddable fashion show, ‘Everyday Runway’, developed and executed by Special PR. The event drew on experiential, PR, influencers,
content, and media partnerships to encourage people to buy clothing second-hand. 

“Crucially, this was supported with through-the-line retail components, such as free-selling promotions, and digital acquisition,” says Grindle. “This led to a direct uptick of thousands of new listings registered on the site.”

Similarly, independent marketing communications consultancy Archer is working with their clients with an increasingly integrated model. Managing Director, Angela Spain, says the way the agency is integrating through media partnerships is the evolution of what people consider the traditional PR agency.

“We’re trying to make everything we do more seamless and effective for the client. It makes commercial sense for the client for their marketing activity to drive efficiency and maximise every channel you can.”

This means using traditional PR methods, such as working with journalists and media, as well as leveraging paid media campaigns and working closely with client data teams. 

Archer worked with Auckland Art Gallery on Guo Pei: Fashion, Art, Fantasy, taking an integrated and multi-channel approach to promoting the hugely successful international exhibition. They worked with sponsor NZME to promote the exhibition on their platforms, which included editorial in Viva, radio competitions and promotions, regional coverage and advertising, social media and in-person events.

“Integration or taking a holistic view of all these options should be the norm, as different audiences consume content in different ways, and you need to make sure you show up fit-for-platform,” says Spain.

She says it’s clear to her that for integration to work, you need to communicate clearly with clients and keep good storytelling at the heart of the process. “It only works when everyone communicates with each other and is focused on the best outcome for the client. When people try to protect their patch, things can unravel. Also, not everything needs to be integrated – it’s about making smart choices about what works best in that scenario and not trying to force something that doesn’t.” 

After a redesign of its business model in 2022, Bastion Shine is redefining what integration can mean for an agency. Part agency, part consultancy, with a range of specialist communications business units, it works with clients to integrate processes from the inside out.

Partner and Chief Strategy Officer, Andy McLeish, says the consultancy is based around the core purpose of driving meaningful growth for their clients – and that’s reflected in their integration journey. Having identified years ago that human capital and performance of people within organisations was one of the most powerful drivers of growth for business, Bastion Shine zeroed in on developing that.

“We built market-leading capability in the coaching and high-performing teams space, and have been delivering
that for our clients for the past few years,” says McLeish. “What this enables is a truly unique integration model,
one that fits the evolving client needs.”

For example, Bastion Shine are engaged by the executive team of an organisation to conduct a high-performing teams programme with the group, helping the organisation define or evolve their core organisational DNA – such as purpose or mission – and offering extensive experience building internal culture and engagement. 

McLeish says brand and creative strategy and the natural by-product of this ground-up approach work ‘hand-in-glove’ with organisation DNA and internal brand programmes.

“The upshot of this is that Bastion Shine is able to deliver an integrated suite of services, all aimed at driving meaningful growth for an organisation in a far more holistic way than a traditional advertising agency. That’s what we mean when we say our clients view us as somewhere between agency and consultancy.”

Bastion Shine has recently worked with a large SaaS [software as a service] brand in a consulting capacity to help them develop a commercial strategy for a specific market segment. The team developed a plan based on a competitive review, bespoke qualitative research and global best practice, which culminated in articulating a value proposition that became the foundation of an advertising brief and PR programme to deliver the commercial strategy to market.

“What our clients tell us is that agencies generally don’t have the capability to conduct the higher-level strategic work, and on the other hand, consultancies don’t have the creative capability to go end to end,” says McLeish.

“That’s a niche we’ve been able to fill with some success.”

Thompson Spencer has always been an agency that does things differently. Founded 14 years ago as a social media agency, it’s now a fully integrated, full-service agency. Group CEO Melanie Spencer says that because they started in social and digital, they didn’t need to bolt on extra capabilities to adapt. 

“After starting life as a social media agency, we realised everything was ultimately driven by the need to communicate memorable creative across disparate and different mediums. Advertising is becoming incredibly fragmented, and our audience’s attention and how they consume media is complex, so knowing who you need to engage, the type of content needed to engage them and how your communications should be crafted takes depth and skilled professionals working together as a cohesive unit.”

Spencer understands the need for different fields to retain their experts under the old Adland model, which is why many of the solutions Thompson Spencer uses for their clients don’t require the full-service toolkit. Some clients need community and crisis management, others need a big brand TV campaign or to launch a new product on social media. 

“We have experts in all these services, but it’s our team’s holistic, integrated approach that acts as a communications superpower,” she says. “The problem is when things aren’t integrated properly and agencies have people working in areas that aren’t their speciality. That’s shoe-horning, and it’s something we never subscribe to.” 

This was first published in our March/April 2024 issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *