Normally when I speak or write, it's to comment on a new trend or the implications of breaking news -- the sort of stuff that's out there in the public spaces of the media. So at first, I thought speaking about social media at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Public Relations Conference later this month would be treading familiar territory. But it's turning out to be something entirely different, something that feels like mapping a personal journey from Madison Avenue to Mars.
I'm fascinated by people and by the way ideas emerge and move through society. I've always wanted to figure out what's happening and why, to work up hypotheses. I've never been content with just observing from a distance; I've always wanted to feel involved, to live trends as they emerge. But I've never written out long-term goals or a map for achieving them.
A series of right-place-right-time breaks got me into marketing communications in the early 1990s. It turned out to be the ideal environment for a suburban mall rat interested in people and influence: fast-moving, creative, results-oriented and powered by human relationships rather than products and processes. What's more, compared with most industries at the time, it was unfazed by smart women. The lingering whiff of Mad Men sexism was fading fast in an industry in which clients paid for ideas, talent and results. In fact, although I do remember the heavy drinking of 20-plus years ago, I have zero recall of gender having been an issue, unless being the first woman to raise my hand worked in my favor, sort of in the "If you're game, so are we" vein. I became Chiat\Day's first head of emerging media and consumer insights, which evolved to director of its Department of the Future (which Fast Company called one of 10 "Job Titles We'd Like to Have") in the early '90s, the first TBWA\Chiat\Day employee exported to hip, trendy Amsterdam after our 1995 merger.
For the next decade and a half, advertising was the place for me. TV and press ads were still the centerpieces of marcomms and commanded the lion's share of clout, budgets and glamour. It's easy to forget that until recently the marcomms playbook pretty much dictated pushing out creative work into paid media in the expectation and/or hope that enough consumers would pay attention, be influenced and buy. I never fully committed to believing in interruption marketing, but advertising was getting smarter. Working on emerging media and consumer insights gave me the chance to scan the zeitgeist and develop new ways of spotting trends (I will never forget co-hosting the Kurt Cobain wake on AOL in an auditorium which, until then, had never been filled to its cybercapacity of -- dare this be true -- 500 people at once), to feed them into creative development and the agency dialogue with clients and the wider world.
From Madison to PR
Looking back, 2007-08 proved to be a turning point for all of us on many levels.
For the United States, the subprime chickens started coming home to roost. In technology, the first iPhone launched, giving on-the-move access to social media sites. And Facebook overtook Myspace on its way to social media domination.
As for me, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Still trying to pack in as much work as I could, it was a scheduling nightmare: six spells in the hospital between Labor Day 2007 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2008; a trip to Cannes that June (avoiding cigarette smoke because I was obsessed with good health to prep for surgery); running a big agency study of the American Muslim market and a global pitch for Nokia; delivering a keynote in Amsterdam in November 2007 when I could barely remember my own name -- but sounding coherent, maybe even more coherent, because suddenly I was speaking slowly; spending Thanksgiving in Russia; and making my usual regular trips to the United Kingdom.
It all prompted my move in early 2008 from advertising (with JWT) to public relations (with Porter Novelli). With the benefit of hindsight and a friendly audience, I can credibly claim that I was going with the trend toward PR. I certainly lucked out on the timing. In 2007-08, the balance of marcomms power was starting to tip noticeably. Interactivity in general, and social media in particular, was down-tuning the preeminent influencing power of classic advertising and up-tuning the importance of PR.
I had collaborated with PR outfits before, including Porter in 1996 (anyone remember the Lego Mindstorms launch?), but being inside PR wasn't at all what I expected. It was a new language and a new way of working, long on cerebral and short on aesthetic. It demanded squeezing a lot of juice out of fractional budgets, which moved ROI to the center of the conversation and upped the emphasis on performance and delivery. It was the ideal starting point to develop campaigns where media-neutral ideas truly do live at the center of the deliverable -- perfectly in line with my old Euro RSCG Worldwide boss Bob Schmetterer and his "Creative Business Idea" concept. And last but not least, social media was storming the Internet, opening the way for PR to take more of a lead in marcomms.
One of the strangest paradoxes of Madison Avenue versus PR is that on the inside and in terms of personality, adland is far more spontaneous and freewheeling, while PR is more cautious and buttoned-down. But in terms of output, adland is more constrained. To influence consumers, adland has to go through the expensive process of creative development to embed branded messages, then work out complex schedules of expensive paid media to put the work in front of consumers. PR also used to work under media constraints, patiently cultivating contacts to deliver crafted messages to reporters and opinion formers in editorial media. Now social media has blown that world wide open. How consumers get their news and how they spend their media time and attention is definitely changing.
From PR Programs to Newscrafting
I'm still fascinated by tracking ideas as they emerge and move through society, and I love getting involved in shaping them. As I discovered way back in my days of pioneering online focus groups through Cyberdialogue, which I founded with Jay Chiat in 1993, interactivity is what makes the Internet so much more than just another medium. Social media has hugely increased my ability to track ideas, and it has become a must-have tool for shaping them. Over the past 20-plus years, my interests have broadened from corporate brands to charities and social enterprises (the Bob Woodruff Foundation, One Young World) and to local development initiatives (Fairfield County Creative Corridor). As we found with trial-and-error newscrafting initiatives such as the PepsiCo Tweetup in 2009, social media is a great way to spark attention-grabbing ideas, develop them and amplify them fast, on the fly.
Five years into my full-on PR life, my trendspotter radar is giving me strong signals that the traditional Madison Avenue approach to marcomms is destined to become history sooner rather than later. We all know only too well how consumers are using technology to get less of what they don't want ("Look at this" advertising) and more of what they do: entertainment, interaction and information. The best output of classic adland can still score with consumers, but it must be created with an eye to living in social media, the new home turf of PR.
For brands and causes, the essential value of PR is increasingly coming from its ability to master the changing forms of news as traditional and social media intertwine. PR firms have a massive opportunity to go way beyond the old practice of pitching the news to become masters of newscrafting for our clients -- a mix of putting out routine news in more compelling ways, creating news opportunities and coattailing relevant breaking news.
Marcomms as newscrafting costs a lot less in media spending than Madison Avenue marcomms and has a lot more potential for leverage than classic PR, but it demands a lot from its practitioners: creativity, originality, daring, mastery of social media, constant awareness of news and trends, and 24/7 responsiveness. I feel as if I'm director of a new Department of the Future.