The new positioning, encapsulated in the catchline 'Engaging, always' and illustrated with some clever turns of phrase (see sidebar) and splashy images on a purpose-built website, is neither a repudiation of past positions, nor a reaction to a problem, Sutton explained to Campaign Asia-Pacific. Indeed, the UK native, who also also serves as Asia-Pacific chairman of parent company Interpublic's Constituency Management Group (CMG), was happy to go into great detail about the success that Weber Shandwick's prior positioning ('Advocacy starts here') has brought in terms of market share and industry recognition.
Instead, the tweak of positioning is a reflection of the way the agency has already evolved and continues to change. "We feel that the environment has so transformed in the last two years, in a sense the business model we're following is so transformed, that we're to some extent becoming a very different company," he said.
The new thinking does not constitute a wholesale change in the way the agency operates, and no significant changes have been made to management or operations, according to a spokesperson. "We still talk about PR, we still talk about reputation, we still talk about advocacy," Sutton said. "But the model has changed quite dramatically, and continues to change now. So the descriptors we've used for ourselves...are no longer adequate for describing what we are about, and more importantly, what we want to be about."
It will surprise no one reading this that the primary force changing the PR business and causing all this reassessment is social media. And Sutton is self-deprecatingly clear that his agency is not alone in recognising or reacting to that change by putting a greater emphasis on creativity, digital acumen, and creating ideas that will not merely reach the target audience but harness its originality and connectedness to further the conversation.
Where Sutton is not so self-effacing is in stating plainly that marketing disciplines are converging, and that Weber Shandwick is well suited to take marketing dollars away from traditional agencies and digital agencies in many cases. Clients come in not saying that they need a campaign, but that they want a big idea, and that they are asking many different types of agencies to generate that idea for them, Sutton said.
In a video clip outlining the positioning, Sutton expands on this point: "I think clients in the Asia-Pacific region are going to have a particular traction to this positioning and this term ['Engaging, always'], partly because that's the way they already see the world." Clients here tend not to distinguish as strongly as their western counterparts do among the different marketing disciplines. "They come to the table, right on day one, expecting you to have a view about the whole of their marketing activity."
In his Hong Kong boardroom, Sutton elaborated. "I think clients have sussed that success goes to old-fashioned virtues," he said. "PR companies have the strategy side that digital agencies lack." Contrary to popular wisdom and the proclamations of digital agencies, the technical barriers to entry for employing digital content are actually quite low, he added. Given that fact, PR agencies have a much better grasp of building and executing a holistic strategy and are "more likely to be less precious" about the technology itself.
This is not to say that an agency like Weber Shandwick is perfectly equipped for this new world order. The ability to create and further those "inciting" ideas comes down to having creative people in place at all levels. And Sutton allows that while the agency has made a lot of progress—a large Hong Kong studio now handles much of the production work Sutton used to farm out—there's still a need for more creative people. This, of course, puts Weber Shandwick in direct competition with traditional and digital ad agencies for talent as well as business.
As an Oxford-educated, old-school industry veteran who held high-level positions with responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Africa before relocating to Asia in 2007, Sutton clearly does not shy away from challanges. This is not a man who is afraid to adapt. Far from it, he is on guard for the opposite: Failing to adapt when the situation calls for it.
"We know, from the history of PR, that there have been other companies that at different points had a very clear leadership position," he says, citing a litany of big-name agencies. "And they lost it."
Highlights from Weber Shandwick's new positioning manifesto:
"It’s no longer just about engaging people with a story. Today, we engage people IN the story. It's an important distinction."
"You are not in control of your brand or message anymore. Today, you share it with your audience. They shape your story, how others see you, what people say about you. They’ll even write your advertising."
"For many, the insight is the holy grail. For us, it’s the Incite, the creative idea at the heart of every campaign."
"Like everyone else you’re probably on some sort of device most of the time... Your message needs to be where everyone is. Which is everywhere."
"If you don’t know where you’re going, all roads lead there... The content we create is carefully designed to move a brand’s story forward towards a distinct goal."
"Asking for a viral video isn’t like ordering soup."
"Caffeinate: You can’t go to sleep, not in this world. You must be ready to react and respond at a moment’s notice."
This article first appeared on Campaign APAC.