Ad Units of PR Shops Seek More Advocacy Work

Even without a recall election in California to help fuel its growth, advocacy advertising would still be a substantial category. Unions, ballot activists, political parties and other groups are spending more in recent years—reaching some $300 million in the first half of 2003—on ads designed to sway public opinion on various issues.

Most ad efforts for such campaigns are created by political agencies that specialize in advocacy and public affairs communications or units of public relations shops. Marsteller is one such unit that now wants a piece of the action.

The advertising arm of WPP Group’s PR network Burson-Marsteller last week named advocacy ad executive Chad McGinnis director of its Washington, D.C., office, which handles clients such as the International Council of Cruise Lines, the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

McGinnis, 37, joins from Smith & Harroff, a D.C.-based independent advocacy ad and public affairs consultancy. The Ohio native’s clients there included the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Restaurant Association and the American Forest & Paper Association. At Marsteller, he reports to the agency’s New York-based chairman, Andrew Nibley.

“In D.C., we had design and interactive capabilities. What we were missing was the advertising piece of the puzzle,” said Nibley.

“I’m excited about growing the advocacy business and building on the creative services here,” said McGinnis. The office plans to target “everything from corporations positioning themselves on issues to trade associations … to coalitions [that] want to influence public policies,” he said.

Various organizations spent a total of $645 million on advocacy ads in 2002, up from $520 million the year before, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

“It is certainly a growing niche,” said Linda Dove, svp and manager of state government relations at the Washington office of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. “We’re coming into a presidential election year, [but advocacy advertising] is as much about issues as it is about elections.”

Many of the largest PR firms, including Omnicom Group’s Fleishman-Hillard and Porter Novelli and independent Edelman, maintain advocacy practices in the D.C. area. A slew of political shops also specialize in the practice.

Ad agencies, individual ad executives and media shops are often called on to create campaigns for politicians, handle government social-marketing accounts and create pro-bono work for the Ad Council and others. But they have not yet been regular competitors for advocacy accounts. “I think [ad agencies] realize this is a niche that has the potential to be profitable. I’m sure they’ll do this more often and promote the units on [the basis of] past experience,” said Jeffrey Edelstein, partner at law firm Hall Dickler Kent Goldstein & Wood in New York, who specializes in advertising and marketing law.

However, Edelstein cautioned that the Nike v. Kasky case, in which a California activist alleged that Nike statements about its overseas labor practices constituted false advertising, could scare companies away from this arena. The Supreme Court failed to rule on the case in June, and without definitive legal protection, many corporations may adopt a self-imposed gag order with regard to public issues affecting them. “It does place a company at risk if it engages in advocacy advertising because there could be [false advertising] lawsuits,” said Edelstein. “Unfortunately, I think companies will think twice about this kind of advertising.”