Bookcase: Wagging the Dog

The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR
By: Al Ries & Laura Ries
Publisher: Harper Business
Price: $67.50

As publisher who depends on advertising revenue to fund the greater part of the distribution of the stories we tell, book title such as this is inclined to raise little beads of sweat on an already overly furrowed brow.

Advertising has for good many generations now sold the world’s products and services and simultaneously paid for the lion’s share of vibrant free media. free media through which not just products but also knowledge and ideas are exchanged is, in my opinion, fundamental to the existence of any marketplace economy. This business model could be seriously under threat if Mr Ries and his co-author daughter were indeed saying what I thought they might be saying. And in country as small as New Zealand where circulation numbers alone are never going to pay the bills, I could envisage the death of many media enterprises, particularly small independents like the company behind this magazine.

And then, I wondered, if marketing budgets swing from advertising to public relations and PR becomes an even more pervasive force in the marketing mix than it already is who, after we’ve all gone broke, will publish PR’s contrived content? Imagine, if you will, my relief when, on reading more closely, I discovered important caveats to Ries senior and junior’s collective conclusions on the future of advertising.

There is shift, from advertising-oriented marketing to public relations-oriented marketing. The book advocates the role of establishing brand through PR and using advertising to subsequently maintain it. “For managers indoctrinated in an advertising culture, this is revolutionary idea. For others it is natural evolution in marketing thinking,” they say.

It might be easier for some of us long-in-the-tooth traditionalists to dismiss some of the thinking behind this debunking of advertising if it weren’t for the fact that Al Ries has some solid marketing and predictive credentials. For instance, with another marketing guru, Jack Trout, he signalled the arrival of the “positioning era” back in 1972. Since then he’s co-authored, either with Trout or with his daughter Laura, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, Bottom-Up Marketing, Positioning The Battle for Your Mind and few others.

PR, not advertising, is “now in the driver’s seat” according to the authors and PR, not advertising, should lead and direct marketing programme. They argue that advertising is now too expensive to use when launching brand; that advertising is not and should not be “creative”; that it is not credible; that advertising talks to everybody and not somebody; that it is all “big bang” and not slow build up and that it is too “funny” to be taken seriously any more.

If PR is superior to advertising, and the book explains in some detail why PR is “rising” while advertising is “dying” and how to think PR, “then why has there been so little written about it”? The authors suggest the media deliberately avoids the topic. Not entirely surprising. “Advertising has its tentacles into newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the internet, outdoor and direct mail. Advertising is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” And then of course there is the American Advertising Federation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers all with vested interests.

Advertising last year (in the US) was US$243.7 billion business versus PR’s US$4.2 billion, ratio of 58 to one. “Advertising is the dog: PR is the tail.” The book, is the authors’ attempt to “wag the dog”.

A decade ago, marketing consultant Regis McKenna wrote in Harvard Business Review that the world was “witnessing the obsolescence of advertising”. He suggested advertising “overkill” had started to ricochet back on itself, and that as advertising proliferated and “became more obnoxiously insistent” consumers had “gotten fed up”.

The underlying reason behind both of these factors was, he said, “advertising’s dirty little secret: it serves no useful purpose”. On that point alone, I simply cannot agree: at least until some other means of funding the world’s free media comes along and I don’t see that happening any time soon. M

Reg Birchfield is editor of Management magazine.
Email: [email protected]

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