Q&A with Alan VanderMolen and Matthew Lackie: PR needs to raise its planning game

Alan Vander Molen and Matthew LackieHow is public relations faring in its tussle with creative, digital and media for marketing budgets, the ear of the CEO and the career ambitions of young graduates?

In this Q&A, Alan VanderMolen and Matthew Lackie, the international president and Asia Pacific SVP of PR firm WE, respectively, talk to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about PR’s place in the marketing world in Asia.

Where does PR fit in the tug of war with the other disciplines on content marketing? How can PR win that argument?

Alan VanderMolen: The easy part first. All content has an editorial sensibility to it. PR as a discipline understands how to sell-in stories, and understands how to do it with an editorial edge rather than a commercial edge. We understand the relevance of content because we’ve had to sell it in through earned media since the dawn of time. We can integrate content better than people who’ve grown up making 30-second spots.

Now, the hard part. I fundamentally believe that who has the best insights wins the battle of content. And that content must work across the whole content ecosystem, not just through a paid channel. I think people who’ve grown up in the editorial world understand that.

I think the tough part for PR traditionally as a discipline is understanding the notion of planning – media and strategic planning. We as an industry, and we as an agency, have to raise our game.

You need great data and analytics to get to an insight, and you need great creative to translate it. Running consistently through that is an editorial sensibility and understanding of the media ecosystem. That’s where the media, creative and digital native agencies are more challenged. But I think the marketplace today is one of ideas, it’s not a marketplace of disciplines.

Alan Vander Molen and Matthew Lackie

Alan VanderMolen and Matthew Lackie

There’s a lot of talk in the industry now about the need for collaboration between agencies and disciplines. Where do you stand on this?

Alan VanderMolen: Collaboration is bullshit. The people who are talking about collaboration are the holding company people who aren’t allowed to swim outside of their swim lanes. So Publicis Groupe talks collaboration, and in the process they’ve commoditised each one of their disciplines. Their position is, the discipline doesn’t matter, you guys are going to collaborate. And you’re going to collaborate because all of you, no matter what your P&L is, are now going to report to the advertising people at a country level.

WPP started the trend when they created Team Ford. They said, this isn’t an Ogilvy client, or a Wunderman client. This is a WPP client, and we’re going to pull all of your people on to this. And you know what happens every day there? People fight over where the money goes. Collaboration is shorthand for, ‘we’re going to commoditise each one of the disciplines’.

But clients want agencies to collaborate. They don’t care where an idea comes from. That’s the cliche right?

P&G chief brand officer Marc J. Pritchard

P&G chief brand officer Marc J. Pritchard

Alan VanderMolen: [Marc] Pritchard [chief brand officer] at P&G was the first to say I don’t care where the idea comes from, I just want the idea. But you have to earn the right to execute.

Look at what he’s done, he’s said I want my brand marketers, my contents people, and my product innovation guys all to sit on the same teams, because I want you to collaborate.

I think the agencies that can address that will win. But I think they’ll win as an individual agency, not with a holding company model. As an independent you’re beholden to one person and one person only, and that’s the client. Holding companies are beholden to investors.

In Asia, where do you think PR is right now in terms of how clients see the function? In the West, PR tends to have more of the ear of the CEO, right?

Alan VanderMolen: Having the ear of the C-suite is important, but it’s not the be all and end all. If you anchor yourself to the C-suite you can alienate your purchaser and your employee base. What’s more important is understanding the employee ecosystem and knowing where to play within it.

You need to be careful when you say, I own the CEO. Where I grew up, CEOs don’t have money. The money is in the comms department and with the CMOs.

Matthew Lackie. There are not that many strong Asian brands. Samsung, Singapore Airlines, Tata and Cathay Pacific are a few. But that list is growing, and presents a lot of opportunities. And it’s because of the change in regional leaders and how they value brand that presents this opportunity. Asian businesses tend to be very profit driven, but we are seeing a lot more innovation in the region, in China particularly.

Increasingly, PR agencies don’t want to be called PR agencies anymore. They are marketing communications firms or something else. What’s your view on this and where the positioning of PR is in Asia?

Alan VanderMolen: Mastery of the media ecosystem and of content gives you permission to play across whatever discipline. I’m very proud of having grown up a PR guy. I’m still proud of what I do, I still say I’m in public relations. I’m proud of its because of its roots; editorial sensibility and understanding the importance of third party valuation. Both of those things are relevant to content creation.

As I’ve said to our teams, describe yourselves however you like, it’s fine with me. You put the client first. You understand your client’s business. If you have superior insights, you’ll win the day.

Edelman probably stands out at the moment as an agency that is looking to broaden its focus by hiring from ad agencies, for example Robert Kay to run Malaysia and Jeffrey Yu in China. What do you make of this, Matt?

Matthew Lackie: It is happening in each discipline. Creative and digital shops are trying to hire skills that PR historically has had. I think client structures can hold us back and pigeonhole agencies, even when it isn’t deserved. Agencies that can come up with the right idea that can drive the outcome the client is looking for are going to win.

We often find that we are competing with agencies from other disciplines. It’s messy at the moment. As soon as clients begin to adapt and become more open in terms of looking for the agency that brings the best idea, the playing field will become more open and those barriers will go away.

WE produced some interesting research not too long ago called Content Matters, which found that people in this region want promotions and discounts more than anything else from the content that brands produce in social media. What’s the latest view on this?

Why Singaporeans follows brands in social media

Why Singaporeans follows brands in social media; source: Content Matters

Matthew Lackie: It depends on what the objective is. If it’s to drive the customer to make a one-time purchase and get them to a restaurant, that’s one thing. But if you’re trying to build a brand your content strategy needs to be more meaningful and holistic, and take the customer on a journey.

What about talent? What’s your sense of how easy it is to attract people into the PR business at the moment?

Matthew Lackie: I don’t see it as attracting to people into PR anymore. We’re moving away from being a hierarchical structure in which people are built to be generalists to a team comprised of specialist capabilities. The model we’re building attracts people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Finding the right talent in Asia is an issue, but over the last 10 years this has improved dramatically. The talent is here. The challenge is scale. There just isn’t enough.

We tend not to hire people with a public relations background. I like to hire people with diverse backgrounds. A lot of the kids we’re bringing in show a lot more promise that some people in middle management, because they’re hungry, and they’ve got hustle.

All the APAC markets need a killer instinct and a willingness to learn, and a strong client service orientation. There is a gap, usually among the younger generation, in terms of thinking ahead of the client.

When the agency calls the client, the client wants to have a personal relationship, but they also want them to be challenging them on what they know and their understanding of the business. That kind of dialogue I’m trying to encourage more of at the agency. Clients want the agency to be the best part of their day.

Isn’t that a cultural issue? Particularly in this part of the world, it is rare that a PR agency, or any agency for that matter, will challenge their client?

Matthew Lackie: It’s learned by modelling. You hire great leadership, great client service people, and teams learn it. But yes, it [challenging the client] doesn’t come instinctively.

Tui head of social Rachel Hawkes at Engage: “I have my life back. I have a much better quality of life, I will never go back”

Tui head of social Rachel Hawkes: “I have my life back. I have a much better quality of life, I will never go back”

Recently, the global head of social for Tui said “I got my life back” when I went agency side. What do you make of that comment, bearing in mind that in Japan recently a young agency staffer took their own life due to overwork?

Alan VanderMolen: I had a conversation with someone I respect tremendously over the weekend who I will not name. She’s a woman, mid-30s. She started an agency, went client side, now is on the entrepreneurial side. She asked me – and I was hard pressed to answer this question – how many people can I count who started at an agency, went client-side, then back to agency?

Her point was not about getting your life back, it was about not getting enough flexibility from agency life. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we give a lot flexibility, and other agencies do too [VanderMolen worked at Edelman before joining WE seven months ago].

Now look at the reverse. Who’s gone client-side then to agency then client-side? I’d love to see some stats on that. She was single while at an agency, had her children client-side, and is now contemplating what’s next…

Matthew Lackie: I think there’s a perception that it’s easier on the client-side. And there are probably places where it is. But it’s also very lonely, and your learning opportunity is limited.

I think as an independent we have the flexibility to think differently about work-life balance, and who are good clients we should work with and bad clients we stay away from. People shouldn’t be committing suicide because they work at an agency.

Alan VanderMolen: There are some client organisations that are great innovators at communications, but a big reason why people go agency-side is because they get to innovate. Another reason people go agency-side is because they like the business versus communications as a function.

Matt and I have been in the agency business all of our careers. I do it because I love the business of communications. Love it. Client-side, you’re [PR] a cost centre instead of a profit centre. We see it when budgets get cut. There’s a difference between us getting 20% of our client budget versus us losing 20% of our freaking department.


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