CommBank CMO Andy Lark: Public relations industry is about to blow it

andy lark

Lark: Creative agencies still want to spend all the money on TV

The chief marketing officer of CommBank has warned the public relations industry that it is going to blow the opportunity of seizing control of the agenda from other parts of the communications world.

Describing himself as a ‘reformed PR’, Andy Lark told last week’s CommsCon conference that the industry needed to recognise the major transition occurring within marketing budgets.

“You’ve got to wake up and realise that the marketing budget as a whole is going through a really radical change,” said Lark.

“Any CMO worth their salt is willing to pour heaps and heaps of dollars into PR and PR programs because they are super effective and super efficient,” he said.

“(But) I think that the biggest threat facing the PR industry is that it doesn’t get off its arse and seize this point in time you have right now.”

“This is a really unique opportunity for PR about once every ten years, you had it at the start of the internet and you blew that one and you’re going to blow this one as well at the current rate of performance.”

Lark’s comments came in a Mumbrella Question Time panel debate as part of CommsCon.

Lark said that many PR agencies were not maximising their strategic and creative capabilities and said that creative agencies were a threat.

“You should be the owners of content, you should be developing content and managing communities, driving conversations… but I’m terrified as a recovering PR that you won’t get with the program,” he said.

Lark held a senior role in the US at PR agency agency Fleishman-Hillard. He was also chairman of the juries for the CommsCon Awards.

He cited PR agency One Green Bean’s recent campaign around the Commonwealth Bank’s Kaching app as an example of where an agency – led by executive creative director Kat Thomas – was using its strategic and creative muscle.

“Kat barged in and said: ‘I can drive more downloads to Kaching than your ad campaigns can. And this is the creative program you should use to do it’,” he said.

“And I went wow that’s a great program we’ll go do that program and you could see the moment we showed it to the ad agency and it was like Kryptonite.”

“It was enormous successful and that’s what happens when you have agency partners with the courage to go: ‘you should give us $200,000 or $300,000 and we’ll do better than your ad agency campaign’.”

Fellow panel member Michelle Hutton, CEO of PR agency Edelman, agreed with Lark and responded that PR needed to “smarter” across the board.

“It’s about insight based creative thinking that develops kickarse creative ideas that has a direct visible impact on our client,” said Hutton.

“Then understanding how that plays out around the media clover from traditional media, to social to a clients own media channels. And we’ve got to get better at it,” she said.

At an earlier session on the future of PR in a panel discussion, involving Margaret Zabel CEO of the Communications Council, Annalise Brown, managing partner at Port Novelli and Mango PR’s managing director Claire Salvetti, Hutton went further telling the audience.

“It really disturbs me when we talk at length at these conferences about who we are and whether we should change our name, why are the other agencies eating our lunch, why aren’t we getting the share of the media spend budgets, why is social media going to other agencies?,” said Hutton.

“I have a simple view and that is: I don’t think we are often smart enough.”

“That really worries me. We know about conversations we get from a transparency point of view we know how to grow brand and manage reputations. I think we need to accept the fact that sometimes there are smarter people than us.”

“There are some really talented people in this room and in this industry and we need to be knocking on some doors to marketers and maybe we need to evolve.”

“Other agencies are doing it and I don’t think they are smarter but they are there giving the ideas and the counsel. Why personal view is that we need to get with the program.”

Hutton’s comments were also echoed by Clare Salvetti of Mango PR who said the “magic” element of PR was gone.

“Once upon a time we did what we did and everyone watched on in a slightly bemused way and now everyone is trying to do earned media,” said Salvetti.

“To different levels of success but we’ve always had the care factor — we’ve had to. Because we’ve always been able to get coverage in because we’ve been able to find the news angle and find the coverage,” she said.

“Suddenly everyone else has the care factor too and some people are doing it well. The evolution for me is about how do we maintain ownership of earned media.”

In the latter question time the Lark warned PR agencies to beware creative agencies and their claims to be interested in creating integrated marekting progrogrammes. He said:

“They don’t want to do integrated programmes; they want to take all your money and spend it on TV.”

“You have to seize the creative agenda and place the emphasis on creative and strategy and forget silly words like ‘reputation management’ and things that don’t mean anything to CMOs.”

“This is about building brands and selling products so walk through the door and say I’ve got a better way to build brands and sell products and it’s called PR and this is what it looks like.”

Nic Christensen 


  1. Katrina
    18 Mar 13
    1:54 pm

  2. Clearly, this was not written by someone in PR. It’s like a secretary typed it from a doctor’s shorthand.

  3. archie bayvel
    18 Mar 13
    2:39 pm

  4. Now back as a journalist after 30 yearsn in PR and advertising, I see that little has changed – Very many PR people haven’t the faintest idea of the diference between quite a good idea and one that turns lights on in the media and their target audiences. Just look at the language used by these women you quote: “insight based creative thinking,” “from a transparency point of view,” “how do we maintain ownership of earned media,” “the care factor.”

    What are these words and phrases? I read popular media from all around the world and they’re not the sort of stuff one sees in their pages. Not a single “let’s do this.” Too many PR people are still wankers. Most ad and creative agencies leave ’em for dead.. – Archie Bayvel, pr director (retd).

  5. Joey P
    18 Mar 13
    4:28 pm

  6. Interesting comments from a Marketing guy.

    I agree that the landscape is changing but to say that PR agencies should run all content marketing/advertising is misplaced.

  7. Mmm
    18 Mar 13
    4:48 pm

  8. wow, great article and some seriously thought provoking quotes

  9. Tom
    18 Mar 13
    5:10 pm

  10. The very issue with most PR agencies is outlined in this article well. Too many agencies adopt a “Them Vs. Us” approach. I work for a media agency but specialise across earned and owned. Most of the challenges we face is working with PR agencies who are unwilling to think beyond their traditional journo contacts. When talking a more innovative approach we are suddenly viewed as the enemy despite the fact all we want to do is help evolve their offering and give them the budget to do so with the end goal…getting some outstanding results. PR agencies are their own worst enemy and this is the very attitude that drives that.

  11. NS
    18 Mar 13
    5:11 pm

  12. wow, it’s difficult to know where to start.

    1. It’s one thing to say that PR firms need to think more broadly, strategically and creatively about integrating with other disciplines from the outset, it’s another to turn this into a “PR pros are dumb” story angle – but i guess that’s a lay-up for Mumbrella, which like most media outlets view PR as soft target which can’t fight back . Of course, the advertising dollar directly pays journo salaries so all aspects of this industry are naturally treated more reverentially by the media.

    2. I’m pretty sure that Andy Lark has only been a consumer tech PR so would speak from fairly limited experience, not having worked in the upper echelons of corporate affairs and issues management. It’s doubtful whether he has needed to manage a reputation in terms of a large corporate issue so like many CMO’s doesn’t understand what this is all about.

    Other CMOs who clearly don’t understand reputation management would include the person at Qantas who ok’d the @qantasluxury campaign, and the person at Westpac who authorised the “your mortgage is like a banana smoothie” EDM. I don’t think their respective CEOs were congratulating them on their ignorance of broader corporate reputational issues.

    Eschewing corporate reputation is nothing to be proud of Andy. It’s a mark of limited experience and is why many marketers will never get a seat at the table where the Head of Corporate Affairs sits.

    3. Let’s be clear about what qualifies as earned media/PR and what doesn’t. If you have a budget big enough to employ David Boon and Brett Lee to spruik your mobile payments service, or to fund a glittering prize like a year ‘caretaking’ Hamilton Island – you aren’t operating purely in earned media land. You are operating in promotional/PR stunt land. Particularly if you happen to also have a large ad budget with the publications you expect to give you ‘earned’ media. Just like CommBank does. There’s not a lot of ‘earning’ going on here.

    4. For an idea to have the effect of Kryptonite would mean that it repels and makes them weaker. Quite the opposite of what Andy meant for it to mean, i imagine. A telling mistake.

    5. To give Andy his due, his PR savviness was displayed through his understanding that he needed to give his audiences what they wanted. His comments gave CommsCon attendees a feeling of superiority over an imaginary budgetary foe, being PR, and gave Mumbrella a pretext to criticise the PR industry.

  13. Glenn Mabbott
    18 Mar 13
    5:54 pm

  14. A silo view from a PR perspective of how to grab a bigger share of a client’s marcomms budget. Andy should know better, a great idea doesn’t care where it came from. Achieving the best ROI for a client requires collaboration across whichever mix of media and implementation that delivers synergy.

    Most big clients continue to procure from silos of expertise and traditional agencies continue to only think of their own share of the pie. Challenger brands will leave them all behind as they achieve more with less, by doing what’s best.

  15. Claudia
    19 Mar 13
    7:07 am

  16. Aside from the appalling transcript that made reading this a guessing game….it’s spot on. For marketing communications PR, we need to be smart and creative. Our clients want to know that what we do works – it either has to sell the brand or sell a product. And creative agencies have the people and the resources to do it. But PR understands what makes news and influences people. It’s up to us to convince clients of this unique skill set.

  17. Simon Darby
    19 Mar 13
    7:40 am

  18. A large part of the challenge is the client understanding of earned vs paid media, and respective values. In some instances it’s that the client understands the creative agency process better that the PR agency process. One is simply more visual. “Oh that’s the ad… looks nice, let’s place it”. Whereas the client may feel less control over earned media, which can be less ‘tactile’.

    The answer is simple. PR must acquire creative agencies (or at least their core creative assets), and use that as a wedge into a bigger share of client spending.

    Give the client a conventional paid media component to a campaign, with PR along side. Eventually you have all the data to show the client that the earned media out performed the paid media. At the same time, you have integrated more creative resources into your earned media process.

    This is not about protecting earned media, rather evolving with a changing world and being a leader in change. I’m sure many of the big PR firms are thinking along these lines. For smaller firms, it may be easier to align with small creative teams that don’t have a vested interest in media buying.

  19. Fabfour
    19 Mar 13
    9:48 am

  20. I completely agree with Andy. We’ve been sitting on a golden opportunity for about four years now and have done little to build client confidence around our industry in the new media area.

  21. Rona Hayes
    19 Mar 13
    9:25 pm

  22. Same ol’ same ol! I’ve been workin in marketing/comms/PR for almost twenty years and marketing has always been the child who demanded the most attention and money while PR/comms is the silent achiever.
    The big mistake here is breaking it down to an ‘us and them’ siloed mentality. Sadly, many Marketing Heads (and Ad agencies) have a limited understanding of the power of a truly integrated campaign and clients suffer the consequences with short sighted shiny, shallow promos that cost a mint and don’t effectively help build on corporate reputation, culture and ultimately brand reinforcement (from the inside out).
    No ad or above the line activity should be considered without an effective PR strategy to back it. Not to mention complementing internal comms and corp comms.
    Come on people! This is OLD news!

  23. Scott Pettet
    22 Mar 13
    10:56 am

  24. This comment thread, or lack of, is precisely what is wrong (in part) with the PR industry. If Lark’s comments had been directed at the ad industry, how many comments do you think would be here? Ad industry folk would rush by the dozen to vehemently defend their craft with righteous indignation! The PR industry? Meh…