Back in 2000 I addressed a seminar of PR consultants who were discussing the "threat" from the internet. Many of them were worried that if print magazines started to die off, relationships with editors would become less important, and many companies would just start to write their own press and PR material which would find a much easier route to publication on the web. Meanwhile, online advertising looked set to boom, and advertising agencies were going to have a great time.
I argued that this wasn't the case: the web would require much more writing to be done, and PR consultants were in an ideal position to capitalise on this. Conversely, online business-to-business advertising would lend itself to a DIY approach, and it was the advertising agencies which would start to lose their customers, with no more hugely profitable bits of film having to be made for magazine adverts (this has been such a lucrative income stream for ad agencies over the years that many continued to make film for clients long after magazines started to ask for digital files instead).
I was right in my assessment, although it took longer than I expected. Nowadays companies get nearly all of their new business through the web, and most are realising they need as much content to be written as possible to help generate this. Many industrial companies have switched a lot (sometimes all) of their advertising to online "pay per click" campaigns which they manage in-house. There's a whole world of new technical writing and advertising management services to be offered.
So… boom time for PR consultancies, and a radical change taking place in industrial business-to-business advertising agencies? Not at all. Both have stuck their heads in the sand when it comes to the internet, and (in my opinion) thoroughly badly advised their clients as to the extent the market has changed, in order to continue going through the same old motions they've been going through for the past 20 or 30 years. Most traditional ad agencies have never really invested in learning about what most of them quaintly call "new media", in part because they didn't understand it, didn't like change, and couldn't see as much profit in it. Instead, they've allowed a number of specialist "e-marketing" or "digital" agencies to come into the market who – despite their horrible names – realise that online advertising is a lot more than being able to do the artwork for a banner ad. Can your ad agency manage an AdWords campaign for you? Why on earth not? It's the only advertising which works for lead generation now, and we all know it.
But it's the PR consultancies – which had an even bigger opportunity – that have disappointed me the most. When I speak to companies about why they've been slow to invest in expanding the content on their websites, they often say "well, we leave the writing to our PR company, and their contract is just to do press releases really". Yes, but haven't they offered to do more? "Strangely, no."
When you look at the news distribution lists offered by many PR consultancies, "online" is covered by sending to the Pro-Talk sites, and – er – that's about it really. "We send to the magazines, and so that should cover their websites". What about working on all the bloggers and other sites that take a bit of effort? A bit out of their comfort (and profitability) zone, it would appear. And let's not get into how few PR consultancies have made the effort to learn how to manage their clients' websites, a fantastic opportunity for them which many clients would love to have been able to have commissioned them to do.
Naturally, there are exceptions, and I'm happy to namecheck outfits such as Copylines and 4CM as PR/marketing consultancies who are making the effort to move forward and get their clients onboard with them. But quite frankly, if your PR consultancy or advertising agency is doing nothing very different from what your PR consultancy or advertising agency was doing for you back in December 1998, then it's time to start asking some hard questions.