Digital Dips Toes Into PR Waters


Back in 2001, when it built the Subservient Chicken with Crispin Porter + Bogusky, The Barbarian Group sat back to watch its creation take off on the Web. The launch plan consisted of little more than e-mailing friends of the firm with a link.

Nearly a decade later, with social media becoming the backbone of the Web and competition for attention intense, TBG is looking to hire earned media specialists who can drive traffic to client projects, rather than wait for the magic to happen.

Marketing "is becoming so blurred, it's hard for us who can do 80 percent of it not to do the rest," said Rick Webb, COO of TBG.

Digital shops big and small are entering a territory once the exclusive terrain of public relations agencies: they're hiring PR veterans in an effort to establish primacy in the fast growing but unsettled area of social media, betting their expertise in content can be complemented with PR-like capabilities.

For digital shops like TBG, EVB and Mekanism, earned media is nothing new. The problem began when clients expected pieces of creative to "go viral" without any paid media support.

As a result, Mekanism has created a five-person, PR-like social media syndication department, and EVB three months ago brought on Droga5 veteran Craig Batzofin as its earned media director. He spread creative like EVB's "Clean It Up" video for Orbit, which involved seeding the stop-motion video on sites.

"We needed someone who thinks a little bit like a PR person, a little bit like a strategist and a little bit like a creative to make these things famous," said Daniel Stein, EVB's CEO.

And last November, Razorfish recruited Fleishman-Hillard executive Cristina Lawrence as director of social media and word-of-mouth marketing. Lawrence built a team of 10, many with PR backgrounds, focused on social strategy and execution with blogger outreach and community management services. For instance, Razorfish worked with child product maker Munchkin to integrate influential mommy bloggers into its site.

Web shops are uniquely positioned to pull together the content and communications sides of social media, said Lawrence, particularly since they have better creative and analytics capabilities. It also helps that agencies like Razorfish work with brand managers while PR firms often deal with communications teams, she added. "It's a direct line to the decision makers," she said.

Part of this shift at digital agencies is due to the changing nature of their projects. While they had mainly done site builds with long lead times and end dates, more clients now put attention (and money) into social media hubs. The build is only step one, with the focus shifting on supplying fresh content and managing the communities.

AKQA, for instance, now has a social media team dedicated to the Nike Football Facebook page where it responds to customers and provides content updates. "We know how to build engaging digital experiences," said Tom Bedecarre, AKQA's chief executive officer. "Now we're getting this deeper level of engagement."

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