You can sense the warmth of Guillaume Herbette at first sight. The CEO at MSLGROUP, the public relations company owned by Publicis Groupe was in the midst of a whirlwind tour of India when Campaign India caught up with him. Still unlike most global CEOs, he did not have a battery of local senior executives surrounding him. He also does not rush you to end a conversation when you are just settling down into a good discussion. Excerpts:
What are the big challenges facing the PR industry in current times?
I would not talk about it as a challenge. I would talk about the opportunity. To me it’s the best time ever to work in the PR industry today. The power of influence has never been as big as it’s today. Because of new technologies. It’s a fantastic opportunity. The power of influence and the power of influencers has never been bigger than now.
As Arthur Sadoun, the CEO of Publicis Groupe says, influence is going to be at the centre of any communication campaign going forward. Being at the centre is a great opportunity.
For us at MSL, we are the only PR agency in our entire group, which is a big difference from our competitors. Look at Omnicom, each time you would go to work with TBWA, DDB or BBDO, you would have to compete against Ketchum, Marina Maher, Porter Novelli. They have six or seven agencies. It’s the same with WPP. In IPG, you have Golin Harris, Weber Shandwick and more.
The challenge for us is, are we going to be strong enough, or big enough to be able to respond to the number of requests coming from within the group.
How is the PR industry responding in the age of fake news?
Because of the reach of social media, fake news can have a very quick impact. It can damage brand reputations in no time. The faster you respond with the right messaging, the better it is. We always recommend to our clients to be fast, precise and accurate.
Are there attempts by the PR industry to come together to fight against fake news?
I don’t think there is a consensus on the best approach. It’s always client specific. This process of fake news is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. We will never manage to control fake news or prevent people from publishing fake news, because of social media. You cannot prevent someone from creating a fake blog and doing a fake review. How can you? Can you respond and react? Being fast and proactive is the only way to do that.
Five years back it was about controlling information. Companies decided what they will share and with whom. Does this change in the age of transparency, where everything that is unearthed becomes shareworthy?
We have moved from a time when companies were telling about themselves or their products to a world where people say about the company. The debate about story-telling versus story-making is behind us. That’s why the power of influence is so important. If you want to buy a new pair of sneakers would you look at a website and trust what the company wants to say about the product or look at the review by a blogger that you trust. Of course, you will listen to the influencers that you trust. The power of influence has never been as big as it is today. It’s going to be bigger and bigger. That’s why the PR profession is in the best of times today.
If we look at the measurement of PR, it’s not been able to keep pace with the times. What would be some things that you would suggest?
It’s been a challenge. Over the last 15 years, measuring the impact of PR has been tried by everyone. Compared to advertising and media measurement that are easily trackable, it’s difficult as the measurement on the impact on reputation has been a challenge. The good news is that we have created a platform called conversation-to-commerce (C2C) that creates a seamless path from influence to impact.
Through a PR campaign, we create content and drive conversations. Once we have this piece of earned content, through digital and advertising mix we create an ad unit. As we work with the media buying agencies we have an amazing amount of information about the audience and what is the right message to pass. This piece of earned information, if we put it in front of the right target audience, on the right channel at the right time. Because it’s a media and not traditional advertising, consumers are going to engage more with this.
They will read about the product and find an ad next to it where you can click to buy. For the first time, we are able to measure the impact of earned media on sales. I call that a PR revolution. It’s the first time where we can prove that the power of influence has an impact on sales. We did about 25 pilots and proving this to clients has been incredible. As Mark Pritchard of P&G would say we are progressively moving from a mass advertising market to a strategy centralised around influence.
From what we did for P&G and Nestle, the impact on sales is six-twelve times bigger than any traditional advertising campaign. The PR agency will be at the centre of any media-agency communication going forward in the next five years.
When agencies have a different P&L in each business, how well can a strategy like “power on one” work for you?
It’s easy to explain. We don’t have P&L’s by brand anymore. We keep track of them, but we are not measured on that. The P&L’s are by country. For instance at the Publicis Communication level one P&L for each country. So Saatchi, Leo Burnett, Prodigious MSL, it’s one P&L for each country. So we do not have the kind of barriers of P&L’s by brand. It’s a huge change.
That’s why it is in the interest of all network agency partners to work together as we are incentivised on a country level. You will not see this in WPP, Omnicom or IPG.
The way the power of one was created, we have four big entities, Publicis Health, Publicis Media, Publicis Communication and Publicis Sapient. The idea was to create four big hubs and put the client at the centre of that. Pubicis Communications was to regroup all the creative production and PR agencies under its umbrella.
It’s been a great opportunity for us to work together. If you look at what was announced recently in Paris, Publicis Groupe has now one head for France and the four hubs are working together under that person. We do not have the same P&L barriers that you see in other big international networks. With our group, the integration is an amazing opportunity for us.
Most clients still evaluate PR in that basic fashion of how much coverage did they get as opposed to how much did they increase their influence. How are you changing that?
Through integration we are coming together with one big idea that’s called customer experience through PR, creative ideas and media buying. The idea is to have one person to address all the client’s requirements.
If you had to manage the United Airlines crisis, what would you have done?
Look at United Airlines. It takes years and years to build a reputation and it just takes a few minutes to destroy it by doing something stupid.
The interesting thing in this case is that they just respected the law. The mistake they did is that they did not communicate fast enough. What I would recommended is to tell the truth. It could have been handled better, but more importantly, I would have recommended it to say, we respected the law, we could have handled it in a different way, and we apologise for that. Then it could have had a personal commitment from the CEO that said, this is what we are going to do so that it does not happen again. I would have made the CEO react much faster than what he did. Obviously there would have been a much bigger plan. But my three simple recommendations are, be fast, tell the truth and propose a solution.
(To be updated)