13 December 2012: When you first joined Facebook, did you ever imagine that in addition to your high school crush, you’d befriend a fly? In 2011, as part of a campaign by Red Agency Australia for Mortein, an Australian pest control product, more than 210,000 people did just that, becoming Facebook fans of Louie the Fly, the company’s long-running mascot, and joining him for the free ice cream he handed out in his traveling van.
It was just one example of what James Wright, managing director of Red Agency Australia, calls an increasing effort by organizations to “humanize” themselves to customers who insist on a dialogue with the brands they interact with in a world where the tools exist to enable that kind of conversation.
For Wright, the ubiquity of social media mandates a change not only in the role of public relations professionals, but also in the positioning of the brands they represent. With the availability of Facebook, Twitter and other channels that don’t depend on traditional media, as a public relations professional, he says, “You’re not just a storyteller, but a broadcaster of that story.” In turn, he insists, companies have to become more human— more interactive, even more “touchy feely”—in order to tell a story that will resonate with their audiences.
Here, we talk to Wright about how his business is evolving—and bringing clients along for the ride.
What’s the biggest change in the way you and your agency as a whole are doing business in the last five years?
Clients want more and expect more, and it means you’ve got to work harder to prove your worth. That has come from this move toward what I call “real-time PR.”
Digital and social platforms have opened up a dialogue model that wasn’t there before. The original PR model was quite analog; you had a story and a channel and you delivered it to an audience. When you put out a story five or six years ago, you sat back and watched the coverage. Now, the story is more organic, so you’re constantly interacting with the community and the people who are interested in your story. It’s made us work harder because we’ve got to think more holistically about how the story might play out.
Is that a good thing?
It can be. It means that brands have to be more human. There is a huge growth in humanizing brands. That can come with its own issues. Most organizations are inherently antisocial; they don’t like being a part of anything they can’t control.
What’s a good example of the humanization of brands?
Well, we did something in Australia with Mortein, which is a pest control product—a really low-interest category. They have this character called Louie the Fly. He has been involved in their TV advertising for about 50 years. He’s the longest running character in TV advertising in Australia. We brought him to life on Facebook. And also we took him on a tour around Australia. He’d turn up in his ice cream van and hand out ice cream to families. He came to life as a “person,” and the brand suddenly became a lot more real and human and fun—not just a fly spray.
Is that something that you would have come up with 10 years ago, social media tools aside?
We may have, but I think there’s more of a willingness now from brands to think that way. The traditional way you marketed pest control products was via TV advertising or taking out outdoor ads. No one was using PR.
Now, people are consuming information through lots of different channels, so TV advertising isn’t as powerful as it once was. Companies are saying, “We need to look at more clever ways of reaching our audiences.”
Tell me more about the idea that brands are becoming more human.
It has always been the case that if you met someone on the street and talked to her like a press release, she wouldn’t find it very interesting. But if someone came to you on the street and started a conversation, you’d be more likely to listen. Brands are actually made of people, and you are selling to people most of the time, so you want to have a conversation.
Why is it different now? No one has ever wanted to be talked to like a press release.
But if you go back five or six years ago, the communication channels you have now didn’t exist. It was quite difficult to start a conversation. Or it was extremely costly. You’d have to do some kind of event. It’s a lot more cost effective than it used to be.
So how does that affect the role of the publicist?
PR is now the facilitator of that conversation. We’re not just advising on the message, but also on the channel for the message. That’s a fundamental shift.
You’re seeing not just account managers, but more community or content managers. A community manager oversees the whole conversation as opposed to a traditional account manager, who would take your message and write it in a press release. So now, if you’re a community manager, you’re in charge of the social profile of the brand. You, as a brand, are your own media—your YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter handle, whatever it is. You are broadcasting your own message or story. You are now managing the message, the conversation and how it is being distributed. Before you were relying on a third party—the journalist—but now you don’t always have to.
What if some customers—who now are in possession of many of these channels themselves—don’t like what your brand has to say?
There’s a growing trend called “flawsome” brands, where a brand can be flawed but also be awesome. So as a brand, you embrace your flaws, and you can be awesome for doing so. Again, it makes you more human as a brand. And people like that. When a brand is very transparent and honest, then people trust it more.
What’s an example?
Domino’s pizza is a good example. The feedback was that their pizza tasted like cardboard. And so they said, “Hang on, you’re right; we’re going to change it.” And so they opened their front doors. They found these people who hated their product and then went through the process, changed how they made their pizzas, then delivered the pizza to those people’s doors and captured it all on video. The idea is that, “OK, we were flawed, and we recognize that. Now we’ve done something really awesome.”
Havas positions itself as a global network with local reach and insights. How is that different from what another firm would offer a client?
We don’t adopt a cookie-cutter approach, and we’re allowed to be very entrepreneurial. You might have a global campaign, but you give your local teams the ability to do their own thing. We’re doing different things in different markets for various campaigns because we recognize that each market has its own culture.
Can you give us an example?
We work for [CPG brand] Reckitt Benckiser across the world. We work on the Vanish brand in Australia. It’s basically a stain remover. They were spending a lot of money on TV adverts, and they weren’t getting anywhere. So we decided we were going to do something different. There’s a huge trend in sponsoring buildings. If Vanish was going to sponsor a building, it would have to be a white building. If we were going to sponsor a white building, we might as well sponsor the most famous white building of all—the White House. And this became a huge campaign both here and in Australia.
We said to the American government, “We’ll give you $25 million if you put this billboard on top of the White House. Loads of people are doing this. You should do it.” So we created this Facebook page and got a whole bunch of followers to support our campaign to sponsor the White House. We got a spokesperson, who was a brilliant actor, to talk to lots of people in Washington.
It was all a joke?
Yes, it was very tongue-in-cheek, but people didn’t think so. We spoke to Democrats, Republicans, Secret Service … We got two interviews on Fox News—both were about seven minutes. Of course, it was all on our Facebook and being amplified back in Australia. And that’s a very different way to market a cleaning brand.
Is that another example of humanizing a brand?
Absolutely. People said, “I get that. It’s not just about a bunch of chemicals I put on my clothes.” That campaign won a lot of awards and helped introduce the brand to a lot of new people, especially younger people.
How do agencies (and PR professionals) need to operate in order to excel in today’s marketplace?
There will always be media relations. We should stop trying to pretend that the traditional part of media isn’t important anymore—it will always be around. You just need to develop more expertise in more channels. So the future is not just about creating a message, but also about understanding and creating channels. You become a broadcaster as well as a traditional PR consultant. You’re not just a storyteller; you’re a broadcaster of that story.
We’ve been so focused on these new channels these last 10 years, but we need to get back to understanding our clients’ businesses really, really well so we can help drive value creation through all available channels.