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 



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