The American Association of Advertising Agencies has tapped GolinHarris, a global firm that represents corporate heavyweights such as McDonald's and SC Johnson, to stave off "negative headlines" and burnish the industry's reputation with reporters and other influencers.
It's unclear exactly what tactics will be employed, but executives familiar with the situation said part of the outreach could target reporters who don't cover the ad business on a regular basis with the hope of scoring positive stories in mainstream business magazines and in the consumer press.
"Our industry has had a reputation problem the past few years, though that's been turning a bit with the excitement around new media," said Julie Thompson, co-chair of 4A's PR committee and communications chief at Leo Burnett. "I was surprised and pleased that an industry association many would call old school would take this step. It's a refusal to keep taking lumps."
The program, one executive said, is a reaction to "negative headlines about the business." And, to be sure, the industry has picked up its share in recent years as consumer behavior and technological change call into question the relevance of ad agencies, especially the largest ones, and their best-known commodity, the 30-second TV spot. More recently, the agency world is getting bad press for its lack of success hiring minority staff.
'Journalists aren't idiots'
But even some agency PR people familiar with 4A's programs aren't confident Golin can pull off glowing headlines in any credible media outlet, given the issues facing the business. "Journalists aren't idiots," one PR executive said. "Why would any journalist, let alone one at a mainstream business publication, want to paint a Pollyannaish picture of the ad industry?"
At a hush-hush meeting Sept. 6, Golin pitched its plans to the 4A's PR committee, composed of top communicators from some of the biggest agencies. A team from GolinHarris, brought in by 4A's President-CEO O. Burtch Drake, laid out a few tactics, including one where agencies would feed news to the Golin team, which would aggregate the information and pitch it as trend stories to reporters.
Those present said it sparked more than a little grousing from agency PR folks, confused about why they'd want to cooperate with their competitors in achieving their communication goals. "The majority of the room was skeptical," said an executive who was there.
Such a program may seem like inside baseball, but it does lay bare the insecurity that plagues the ad-agency industry in a time of immense flux. Just how the industry is perceived in corporate boardrooms, on Wall Street and in major business media has consequences for both how marketing budgets are spent and for the financial fortunes of the publicly traded companies that own most of the major shops.
This isn't the first time the 4A's has tried to counter skeptical reporting on the ad business. In 2004, it hired Dan Klores Communications to publicize the first Advertising Week.
It ended up landing a Fortune story titled "Nightmare on Madison Avenue." Oh, it mentioned Advertising Week, but not before it spent a few thousand words trashing BBDO and giving Shelly Lazarus and Donny Deutsch room to criticize the industry's shortcomings. It also quoted executives whining about procurement and, of course, the passing of the easy-like-Sunday-morning business culture that dominated for so long.
"Any time you pitch a story, you run the risk of being glorified or crucified," Ms. Thompson said. "No risk, no reward."