Warren Johnson
Jul 2, 2018

PR people should have a superiority complex

Warren Johnson of W Communications says it's time for PR agencies, particularly in Asia, to show off their creative powers.

PR people should have a superiority complex

In a few years from now we may look back on 2018 as a pivotal point for PR agencies in Asia. There is a huge opportunity to demonstrate the value of creative thought. Those who do will be the pioneers of a new ‘golden age of PR’, and those who continue working in their old ways will get left behind.

Technology-driven disruption is opening up a new playing field for the creative industries—one in which the ‘PR people’ are perfectly placed to lead on new communications strategies for businesses and brands, as they define their voice across a plethora of new media channels: earned, owned and paid.

This is a finite opening for us, and those who deliver ideas and efficiency across the region will grow, prosper and start eating ad agencies' lunch (and dinner), but it also comes with warning. Quite simply, it is a case of create or die.

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been at the end of the food chain when it comes to integrated work. We’ve always had to amplify whatever campaign the ad agency has created for our clients. Haven’t we all been asked to ‘get PR’ for an activation that, despite thousands of dollars being spent to develop it, has little news value?  And let’s face it, it has not always even been as good as that.

In fact, part of our role as brand guardians has been to raise concerns about risks with the eventual consumer outtake. Not just a case of ‘we aren’t sure how much consumer appeal this has’ but quite often ‘this could backfire horribly’. 

Recently Keith Weed, the CMO of Unilever, warned that his roster of advertising agencies had not moved with the pace of the business world: “There is everything to play for if agencies reinvent themselves in a fragmented media world. It’s never been so complex, but also there has never been such an opportunity to build an agency solution. If you simplify the complexity I’ll buy the product.”

In an age where digital content can be produced far quicker and far cheaper than ever before, clients are reducing budgets and opening up briefs to all agencies. It is a case of ‘the best idea wins’ and that’s something we PR people should be comfortable with. PR is an ideas business, but I would argue that we still need to up our game creatively in the region.

Clients, whether a global giant like Unilever or a local SME or start-up, want a proper return on investment; they want agility, fresh thinking and smart, relevant ideas where coverage and sentiment are earned, not bought. They want action, they want results and no one is in a better position than PR agencies to provide it.

Looking at it like this, as PR people, we should have a superiority complex. We have the advantage of knowing how to make an idea work across all channels, whether it’s through an event, a partnership, traditional news or social media. We also have a deeper understanding of audiences and news value. We are able to develop great ideas that can deliver the end result—rather than just delivering the content.

However, despite this opportunity, the PR landscape in Asia is, in many ways, still in its infancy when it comes to pushing the power of creativity. We do not see PR giving ad agencies a run for their money as much as we do in some other markets. But this goes two ways, with many clients in Asia still viewing us as the add-on at the end, or the icing on the cake here to maximise their existing campaign ideas, rather than cook them up.

But, equally, having spent a lot of time in Asia, this is a very exciting time. There’s a raw underlying appetite for innovation and disruption. Asian consumers are more connected digitally than anyone else in the world and this, combined with some fantastic talent in the region, gives us an opportunity to really turn this perception around, driving more of a results-driven and fully integrated, creative approach.

Proof of Asia’s brimming creativity was reflected at the recent Cannes Lions, which saw over 6,000 creative and ad entrants from across the region. And with our own UK team winning seven awards last week, there is, clearly, an opportunity for Asian PR agencies to now take greater slice of the creativity pie.

But, with competition heating up across Asia from all angles, we must harness our potential. Those who grab the moment and take the lead on big ideas will usher in this new age, but the rest may be left out in the cold.


Warren Johnson is founder of W Communications in the UK and W Asia in Singapore