The Roads to Convergence: Exploring the Future of Communications

January 3, 2019

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PR leaders surveyed on the future of our profession tell us the term “public relations” won’t accurately describe their work in the next five years. Public relations is converging with marketing services, and a new world is emerging for practitioners, educators and students. Organizations are now integrating marketing services, content offerings and communications channels to deliver against key objectives.

In 2017, we at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication decided to lead the way in convergent communication and began implementing a new integrated model for our student-led agency, Talking Dog.

To create the right context for the new model, we interviewed thought leaders — CMOs, CCOs, heads of integrated agencies and educators — seeking their input on the forces that are shaping the new convergent model.

This report spotlights “The Seven Truths” leaders tell us are driving the future of our profession. — Dr. Bryan H. Reber, Department Head, Public Relations, Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Georgia

Our world is changing faster than at any time in history. Marketing and communications leaders tell us the speed at which things are changing is unique and differentiating.

“We had a leadership meeting six years ago,” said Steve Behm, president, Edelman, southeast region, “and we talked about a ‘culture of change.’ We had to think differently about how we did our business.”

Change is accelerating in all business models and corporate cultures. While corporate and agency marketing and communications leaders once had the luxury of looking out over weeks or even months to measure and prove the value of their function, C-suite executives today demand immediate results. “We introduced a new Slim Jim product on the ‘Today’ show,” said Jon Harris, chief communications officer at Chicago-headquartered Conagra Brands, “and by the afternoon, people were asking, ‘How much product have we sold?’”

This demand, along with changes to corporate structure, has evolved a convergent communications model focused on the synergy between public relations and marketing. Here we’ll explore what that means for our profession.

1. "Average” is officially dead.

Bob Pearson is a digital marketer, investor and communicator who has served global organizations like Dell, Novartis and W2O Group, the latter an integrated firm where he was vice chair and chief innovation officer. Now a senior adviser to the firm, Pearson is authoring a new manifesto for W2O Group on the agency of the future — one that will be convergent, data-driven and bold.

“We’re educating our people to use analytics and new account-management strategies as opposed to old models,” he said. “That’s the separation that’s occurring in our business.”

For Dunkin’ North America CMO Tony Weisman, if you’re average, then you’re dead. In 2017 Weisman arrived at Dunkin’s headquarters in Canton, Mass., to find an in-house team that had grown complacent and change-resistant. “When I asked why things were done in certain ways, I was told, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’”

To drive change, he dispatched C-suite leaders and team members into the world of franchisees, customers and thought leaders, challenging them to experience the shifting landscape in real-time — and raising expectations for higher performance.

Dr. Kirsten Strausbaugh-Hutchinson, senior lecturer in advertising at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication, has watched Madison Avenue’s storied advertising brands bundle and unbundle their services to address changing client demands. She said agencies want to be seen today as responsive to marketplace needs and trends, but they’re not.

“They’re all bogged down with layers and processes, and that costs clients money,” said Strausbaugh-Hutchinson. “They’re all the same.”

2. The speed of disruption is unique, differentiating from the past.

What does speed really mean today?

“The speed of disruption has changed the way we think about deadlines,” said Kim Landrum, senior lecturer in advertising at UGA’s Grady College. “It’s devalued the process we use. Clients think it’s so much faster, and I can do this so much more quickly, but that doesn’t change design and messaging, look and feel. It still takes time.” And by the time we’ve educated clients, Landrum said, the technology will morph again.

The speed of disruption has also changed the way consumers access information. Edelman’s Behm said the speed at which information is changing between mobile and other platforms, and the ability to go peer-to-peer direct as well as brand-to-consumer direct, is “incredibly disruptive to the traditional architecture of the agency world and our approach to the marketplace.”

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, professor of practice and director, communications management, at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and 2018 chair of PRSA, said, “If you’re managing today, you’re managing change.”

D’Angelo commissioned a research firm to identify actions that Syracuse should take to equip graduate students for the future. “This firm came back to me and said, ‘We’ve studied a lot of professional disciplines. We’re not sure we’ve ever assessed one that is changing faster than your field,’” he said.

And convergence in our profession was at the center of their findings. 

3. Corporate and agency models are broken.

While serving as IBM’s chief brand officer, Jon Iwata remembers a conversation with Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and former CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising and marketing company. The day of reckoning had arrived for the big holding companies with semi-independent brands, and Sorrell was hammering home the point that clients no longer value being tethered to disparate and disconnected agencies. Within days, WPP merged two of its biggest PR brands, Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe.

“Clients want more integration,” Iwata said. “The model of agencies in a holding company brings massive redundancies and no economies of scale or efficiencies. On the profit side, it’s killing those guys. They never actually integrated anything and don’t share anything. The economic structure can’t sustain that.”

General Motors spends billions of dollars annually with partner agencies. In GM’s offices in Detroit and suburban Birmingham, Mich., teams from Chevrolet are working with WeberShandwick, the Commonwealth Agency and McCann Worldgroup to understand outcomes that can be realized from the integrated agency model. Tony Cervone, senior vice president, global communications, at GM, has been a catalyst in helping drive the process. 

“[GM’s agency partners] always sat in the same building. They just never talked to each other,” Cervone said. While the agency partners maintained that they were interacting and having conversations about shared work, he believes they weren’t engaging for strategic business purposes.

Today, Chevrolet’s social, marketing, advertising, communications and support is all under one roof, Cervone said, and the agencies are working together with greater effectiveness.

Companies at a critical juncture in the change process want partners who can drive a relevant, incisive point of view to help navigate the here and now.

“An agency like that isn’t thinking about annual programs and budgets,” said D’Angelo. “Those are almost quaint notions. It’s almost like, ‘We’re going to get through this thing, and then we’re going to run like hell to get through the next thing.’”

Weisman thinks agencies suffer today because there isn’t a bench of experienced professionals. He said agencies need a stable of racehorses, with strong leadership inside to coordinate it. “You have to naturally want to collaborate,” he said. “You need an overdose of the collaboration gene.”

D’Angelo believes that clients need programs pointed squarely at organizational outcomes. “We can debate the billions of tactics and delivery systems,” he said, “but if they’re not pointed at organizational outcomes integrated with what we’re doing to support an organization, then I think we’re sort of making noise.”

Conagra’s Harris worries about the diminished role of the corporate communications function as CMOs take on greater oversight for all marketing services and communications.

“We owned content at one time,” Harris said. “Then, when the advertising function declined, everybody wanted to do what we do. We owned the brand and reputation, but we’ve relinquished it over time, too. We’re spending more of our time creating loyalty for our work. We’re playing in a much different sandbox.”

And with the entry of consulting firms in the communications profession, that sandbox is becoming smaller.

4. Space between creative firms, consultancies has converged.

Imagine for a moment you’re leading an agency team into a big pitch. On most days, you prepare to compete against your brethren in public relations or advertising, but today is different: Your team is competing against a new division of a major newspaper whose declining revenues forced the company into the brand journalism content generation.

D’Angelo heard this tale from the agency leader who competed in that “bake-off,” and it caused him to consider the implications of the new field of competitors in our profession. “How would you like to go into a pitch, and you could be up against a major newspaper or a Hollywood producer?”

Iwata said the trend of nontraditional firms like McKinsey, Deloitte Digital, Accenture Interactive, PwC Digital Services, IBM iX and others moving into the agency space will surely accelerate as these firms leverage existing clients and exploit C-suite relationships, where they’ve historically supplied accounting or consulting services.

Sir Alan Parker, chairman, Brunswick Group, London, has led global teams squaring off against these new competitors. He’s more sanguine about the true abilities of consultancies when a client’s reputation is at stake. “Communications is really our ‘taproot,’” Parker said. “It’s a live business. Strategy and consulting are not live. Markets are live, and media are live. McKinsey can’t stop the clock for 90 days to come back with a 300-page deck to tell you what you need to do. We get the call and might have 90 minutes to prepare what we need to say.”

What is perceived as a threat for some, however, may be an opportunity for the next generation of communicators.

“The good news for people entering the profession is, you can fight from a number of different angles,” said Weisman. “You can go to work at Facebook or Google. You could go straight to clients. Or you could go to a social media shop like VaynerMedia, where they write their own code and buy their own technology. Or IBM, Accenture or Deloitte. Or Hearts & Science, the most successful agency in the last five years because it’s run by data guys. The other choice is to be a pure-play creative shop.”

In the end, however, Weisman said that the digital operation is still “the tail on the consulting dog — and the world’s greatest creative talent doesn’t work there yet.”

5. Accountability is critical to our credibility and success.

It was a momentous time in January 2018 when Alex Taylor, great-grandson of Cox Enterprises founder James Cox, was named CEO. In the days that followed, Taylor began laying out his agenda, and Bob Jimenez, senior vice president, corporate communications and administrative services, was at the center of activity as Taylor sought guidance on a range of issues. 

At Atlanta-based Cox, as in other major companies, executive leaders often sit in a bubble; they don’t necessarily have the benefit of hearing all that is going on inside an organization or externally. Jimenez said his leaders expect the communications team to provide insights on what might occur, counsel when something erupts and to have an informed point of view on the possible implications an issue may have on the business.

“Above all, they expect us to be accountable,” Jimenez said.

Weisman agrees: “You can’t go a day without a question from the CEO or the board saying, ‘Prove to me that it worked.’ We grew up in an industry where we could say, ‘Fifty percent of advertising doesn’t work… I just wish I knew which 50 percent!’ You can’t say that anymore. You do know. If you don’t, your competitors have the answer.”

6. Data is at the core of everything we do.

Modern marketing has become a mash-up between the CMO and the CTO: Those ascending the ranks through strict technology offerings tend to be data scientists, computer scientists, architects or engineers, who don’t behave like marketers. On the flip side, CMOs are suddenly being asked to justify major capital expenditures for data-management platforms, software and ad tech that boards of directors were unaccustomed to approving.

“You’ve got this overlap,” said Weisman. “What’s the CTO’s role and what’s the CMO’s role?”

Iwata likens data to instrumentation. “With the rise of digital, marketers and communicators can actually capture and understand what’s happening right now, what people are saying, doing, looking for, and what they like and dislike,” he said. “That’s phenomenally valuable data that we can act on, and I don’t think we’re using enough of it to understand stakeholders.”

7. Convergence is the new ROI.

Boundaries between traditional marketing and communications are disappearing. Companies like IBM, Conagra, Tenneco and Cox have undergone radical shifts in their business portfolios through mergers, acquisitions and spinoffs, or they’ve entered more complex markets, requiring new corporate positioning for reputation management. Senior executives need a cohesive approach to effectively reach stakeholders through an explosion of media channels.

At IBM, Iwata championed original content development, the adoption of new platforms and channels and the use of data analytics. “We sometimes hear about these in pieces, but more-advanced organizations think about these three things as integrated,” he said. “Modern workforces use mobile, they use social and they consume content in all the modern ways. Inside, outside, the same kind of mechanisms are needed.”

With the explosion of growth at Cox, Jimenez recognizes the benefits of convergence: “We’ve integrated our communications team into one team with one leader. We’ve created this very robust content development and channels team that is producing content that can be used across multiple channels and multiple audiences. They are a machine. It’s a beautiful thing. We have this stable of writers now. And this is where we’re heading.”

Parker has contemplated the convergence of advertising, marketing and communications, and the type of professionals who will succeed. “There are some people who are born as natural general counselors,” he said, “but they’ve probably come up through the firm as a specialist. The great difference today is that a specialist has to see themselves as bringing the whole of the firm to the client, and the whole of the client to the firm.”

One challenge to becoming convergent is turf wars in the C-suite. The threat of collapsing the PR function under marketing strikes fear among many. “For some reason, people in the PR business are scared to death to be connected with anything other than being in the PR business,” said Michael Meath, interim chair and professor, public relations, at Syracuse’s Newhouse School.

Conagra’s Harris is more direct: “Our industry is at the mercy of marketing. Actually, at some point I see brand communication moving over to marketing. Marketing has bigger budgets. The CMO and chief growth officer have more influence than we have.”

The biggest challenge to convergence, however, may come from the academy, where educators are digging in to protect the advertising and PR silos they’ve created over many years.

“I can’t tell you how many times … I get into this discussion and people are saying, ‘Well, that’s just advertising, and we have to define ourselves and stand up for our identity here,’” Meath said. “If our faculty have this attitude, we’re not going to be able to do anything with our students to help them view the world in a broader sense.”

Keith Burton

Keith Burton, principal, Grayson Emmett Partners, Chicago, is recognized as one of the world’s leading employee communication consultants. He has been a PRSA member since 1984 and is Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and is a trustee of the Institute for Public Relations.


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