Advertising Age reporter Michael Bush covered the consumer products beat for PRWeek as a senior reporter from 2005 to 2008. He joined Advertising Age in January of this year as a reporter and now covers the PR, direct, branding and experiential marketing disciplines.
In an exclusive interview with PRNewser, Bush talks about what he’s hearing from agency CEOs lately, why transparency is more important now than ever, and how we’ll have a much better idea of how the PR industry is fairing this fall.
You recently joined Advertising Age this past February, after a little over two years at PRWeek, how has the transition been?
It has been very smooth because I was obviously covering PR there [PRWeek], and AdAge brought me over to expand on the PR coverage they were doing. So, it wasn’t a different beat. The transition was very smooth actually.
What Advertising Age story are you most proud of so far, and why?
Well, that would easily have to be the Mark Penn piece, and the follow up stories. It was a lot of leg work, probably the most reporting I’ve done on something.
A lot of work went into it, a lot of back and forth. It’s one of the bigger stories for the industry itself.
Couple that with the fact that I did get a slight bit lucky, with the timing, in terms of him being demoted and being stripped of his responsibilities the day after the story hit. It was extremely timely and a big piece of news for the industry.
What budgets will get cut first in an economic downturn, advertising or PR?
I think it depends on who you talk to. Ad people are going to say PR. Most PR people will say the ad side. It also depends on the marketer, if they’re looking to go in a different direction and then they don’t see traditional media working, then it’s a good chance the ad side will get cut.
From the PR CEOs I talk to, they say they see the ad side of things getting cut and that helps the PR side. A lot of them say they’re seeing an increase in activity from their big clients.
I haven’t spoke to many ad agency CEOs but if I did I’m sure a good portion of them wouldn’t tell me that their budgets are getting cut.
How much does branding pertain to PR companies? As in, how does a well known PR brand, or a big agency owned by a holding company help, compared to more mid-size agencies?
Most important is that, they [holding company agency] can go into a pitch saying we have all these other disciplines behind them, advertising, experiential, etc. I think from that standpoint, it does work in their favor.
However, in times of an economic slowdown, it could work against them, especially if cost is a major factor for a marketer. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what the firm is. If a marketer is looking to cut costs in any way, it doesn’t matter what the brand is or who the holding company is, they may go with the mid-size agency because of cost.
The PR industry is doing fine now, but we’ll really know where things are headed come this fall. Agree or disagree?
I think that is absolutely true and it’s what I’m hearing from a lot of people in the industry that I speak to. A lot of them will say the first quarter was great and they experienced growth. But a good portion of that is coming from new business wins at the end of 2007. Now things weren’t great then either, but they weren’t as slow as it is right now. We’ll have to see the stuff that they’ve won this year, how those new clients are going to spend going forward.
Come fall, end of summer, we’ll definitely have a much better idea of whether it will be a big slowdown. Just look at the holding company numbers. Look at first quarter 2007 versus first quarter 2008, they went up, but not as much as from 2006 to 2007.
What are some corporations out there who have used PR as a real competitive business advantage? Where because of their PR, they are better able to secure business objectives and create more value for shareholders?
I think probably the biggest one that I’ve seen in past year or so, is Nintendo. Not just Nintendo, but video game titles, Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero.
That entire industry. Also, Axe [body spray] does a lot of great stuff, and Dr. Pepper. Audi. You have to include Nike and Apple, as well.
Nintendo with the launch of Wii really did a good job utilizing PR.
Is PR becoming more integrated with the rest of the marketing mix, or less so? And if it is, is it taking more of a position of driving the strategy or is it being driven?
I think it’s definitely becoming more integrated, it’s no longer an add on. One initial thing that I’ve heard, not just from CEOs, but people who are involved in new business pitches, what they’ve seen a lot of now, the client tells them up front, “You need to be able to play well with others,” basically get along and work with other disciplines.
A lot of marketers themselves are trying to drive integration based on that. Some companies like Dow, the human element campaign they did. That was led by the strategy from Golin Harris.
I’ve also heard from someone at a major agency who said a few major clients are letting them drive assignments in various marketing platforms form the beginning.
I’ve heard stuff from small shops where PR people are being brought in from start with advertising and marketing folks to work on the campaign.
Integration is happening, not as fast as everyone would like it to be but it is happening.
Everyone’s talking about social marketing. What do you think is going to be the next avenue that PR is going to try and exploit to communicate messages?
I think search is going to be the area. I spoke with someone who said it was something that industry should start taking advantage of and utilizing more often. I’m not sure how they will go about it, but search will probably be a new avenue.
Are they not doing it now?
It’s not something that I’ve heard from a lot of agencies.
If someone asked you, “what does a PR person do?” What would you say on a really high level?
I mean, I guess basically provide marketing and business counsel to his or her client on a frequent basis. In this new media landscape, especially if you’re working with a big consumer brand, you need to provide a client with accurate temperature reading of what consumers think of them.
There are so many more crisis these days. Handling crisis well is key, every time you turn around there’s a new one.
There has been a lot of talk about more corporate transparency. Do you think this is actually happening, and if so, do you think this trend will continue?
It better continue, just because, things spread so fast and consumers are going to find it if you try to hide something. And you really have to be as transparent as possible. Especially in the case of crisis.
Things do come up I guess, such as the whole foods CEO blogging incident. He kind of tried to hide it. Things like that come up and raise consumers eyebrows. It’s a trend I think that if it hasn’t started happening more often, it needs to.
2007, just by itself, there were so many crisis in a wide variety of industries. A lot of them did their best to get out in front. For the most part I think a lot of them did a good job.
Even now, I think airline industry is doing a good job of knowing what is going on. Trying to be as open as possible on the effect of fuel, explaining why the prices are rising, and what the price of fuel is doing. That is an example of an industry trying to be transparent with why they are charging extra.
They need to because it’s hard to keep things hidden nowadays.