With the formation of a new content group, Interpublic's Weber Shandwick is expanding its remit far beyond what's traditionally been associated with a PR agency.
Called MediaCo, the new unit is attempting to capitalize on content marketing --a channel which advertisers have been increasingly interested in investing but still figuring out how to execute. Among the capabilities Weber Shandwick will market via MediaCo are native advertising and digital media buying.
"There has been a long evolution in the development of this content element of our business," said Chris Perry, global head of digital at Weber Shandwick. "But over the last 60-90 days, this whole area of the business has caught fire not unlike how we saw social media catch fire four-to-five years ago. When you get into the work it's a whole new thing bringing together different disparate pieces- from editorial to some newer sexier native advertising, to the social paid side of things. We see this part of the business becoming inevitable for clients to get into."
Jason Wellcome, exec-VP of digital at the PR giant, said the setting up of MediaCo is in response to client requests for help with content marketing and new opportunities for new business. Mr. Wellcome will serve as general manager of the unit and work closely with global head of digital Chris Perry to guide day-to-day operations as well as practice development.
"We're not just distributing content through social or web publications. We're tapping into new paid media models," said Mr. Wellcome. "It's important that folks can understand it and manage it on a real-time basis."
The firm said that the formation of MediaCo has required staffing up with new sorts of talent, such as brand planners, editors, user experience designers, writers, SEO experts, media planners and producers. Among recent hires who will play a role in the new content venture are: MediaCo editorial director Parker Ward, who had worked at Hearst Interactive as a managing editor; director of paid media strategy Corey Thibodeau, who most recently oversaw ad sales and operations at sports technology startup SeatGeek; director of media planning and buying Lana Femiak, a former media planner from mobile advertising startup Greystrip and former associate media director at Dentsu; and senior digital strategist Eric Reif, who had served as a senior digital advertising manager on the Obama for America team.
It's tapping outside companies too. To help manage clients' holistic strategies, the firm has compiled a list of preferred partners, including Adaptly for support in paid media and Contently for writing, as well as Outbrain and Tongal for content creation, production and distribution.
Weber Shandwick is not the only PR shop that's made clear it has ambitions to get into the paid media and content space. Independent PR giant Edelman, for example, made one of its most visible investments in paid digital media this year by hiring Mindshare's Cassel Kroll as exec VP-media strategy.
When asked how this type of practice might complicate the agency compensation model, Mr. Perry emphasized that the capability is making a "positive contribution" to clients' business. But, he added, "It will be a challenge for clients to decide where this fits in with their budgets."
Still, he emphasized the thirst for support in brand publishing. He cited an old campaign in which the firm worked with media partners and executives from MTV to build an editorial platform - a single website - for client General Motors. It only took off when it was actually shared, he explained.
"The idea of a brand as a standalone media destination is probably not a strategy we'd recommend, but the idea of creating a compelling content model and having a distribution mindset, and connecting it with people who care about it is standard with what we're creating today," he said. "It's also getting invented and reinvented."