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Tim Sutton

Chairman, Asia Pacific | 22 Nov 2013

Roughly 20 per cent of our revenues globally come from digital, which didn’t exist just three years ago. It’s not just about digital – that is the whole engagement play, which is why we now call ourselves an ‘engagement agency’, because so much of what we are doing now is really strategic content. Most of our clients have woken to the fact that they already produce such an incredible amount of content that they factor to become publishers. The serious dollar now is in helping companies to effectively become publishers of their own material across multiple platforms and engaging with the audiences directly.

Tim Sutton is Chairman of Weber Shandwick in the Asia Pacific region and is one of the global PR industry’s most respected practitioners. He also serves as Asia Pacific Chairman of the Constituency Management Group (CMG) of parent company Interpublic, which includes its various below the line marketing services businesses in the disciplines of public relations, events management, sports marketing and brand identity.

Prior to moving to Asia Pacific in 2007, Sutton held similar responsibilities for many years in Interpublic’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa region.

For 12 years, Sutton was personally responsible for the whole of the airline bmi British Midlands corporate and brand development programmes in Europe, reporting directly to Chairman, Sir Michael Bishop. In the 1990s, he led the successful political campaign for the UK brewing industry against government competition policy proposals. His campaign on behalf of independent gas companies was responsible for the deregulation of the UK gas market. Prior to his career with Weber Shandwick, he was Chairman of Orpheus Group and previously Chairman of BSMG Worldwide’s European operations and CEO of Charles Barker Plc, then one of the UK’s best known and respected independent PR companies.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Shanta Saikia, Sutton speaks at length about PR operating in a dynamic digital landscape, the skill sets required to handle the growing challenges and more...

Q. How has the public relations landscape change in recent times? What are the key trends emerging?

From our perspective in terms of what we are doing in PR, we’ve seen an absolutely astronomic rise in spends on the digital world. In the last four or five years, we’ve seen a very substantial change in revenues. Roughly 20 per cent of our revenues globally come from digital, which didn’t exist just three years ago. It’s not just about digital – that is the whole engagement play, which is why we now call ourselves an ‘engagement agency’, because so much of what we are doing now is really strategic content. Most of our clients have woken to the fact that they already produce such an incredible amount of content that they factor to become publishers. The challenges in being a publisher are quite different to that when you are just trying to influence some intermediaries. So, the serious dollar now is in helping companies to effectively become publishers of their own material across multiple platforms and engaging with the audiences directly. We are helping them understand the relationships within the media world to do that, looking at what the rules of the road are when you start being a publisher. So the direct engagement of companies with their audiences is kind of the name of the game. This market didn’t exist for us three years ago. It’s also somewhat scary, because the reverse might also happen and this market might not exist in three years time. Therefore, you’ve got to recognise that it is a very fast changing world.

Q. How is Weber Shandwick carving a place for itself in these changing dynamics?

Engagement work through strategic, aggregated content across many platforms is what PR agencies, especially the larger ones, are successfully tackling globally. We have introduced a concept called ‘Media Core’ globally, which is a high-end content publisher for clients. And because we have always been good at engagement and story-telling, it is a natural fit for us, but it has completely changed our business model. It means we are employing people whom we have never employed before; and plotting all those platforms together is not what we historically did. This offers a huge opportunity for us and is generating a lot of money for us and it is changing all the time, which makes the scenario very volatile, but at the same time also very exciting.

Q. Weber Shandwick adopted the brand philosophy of ‘Engaging Always’ some time back. How exactly is this positioning benefitting clients?

We have thought long and hard about doing this and initially there was some hesitation about this. We are not embarrassed by the word PR, if you turn the words around it means relationship with the public, which we still do and we are still managing relationships with the public on behalf of our clients. But when we look at what was happening in the world, we found it a bit limiting, because increasingly we found that clients were beginning to do the kind of work that weren’t so easy to categorise, were mostly publishing work and weren’t within the normal rule book of what a PR company is normally supposed to do, and clearly a lot of that work is done by the web audience now.

The idea of looking at an engagement agency effectively was to put ourselves in the position to have some influence and say at every touch point that the client has with his audiences, whereas previously the touch point was quite narrow. Our touch point previously was that you would call in a PR company if you wanted to manage your reputation or you had a crisis in your reputation and you are primarily concerned with how you are interpreted by the media and your audiences. Putting ourselves in the position where we went beyond PR and had something worth saying about all the touch points with the customers in a much broader sense gives us the legitimacy to have something to say to clients about a much broader range of their activities. It’s a much internal position as external, because a lot of it is a huge cultural change for the people, myself included, being from the old PR school.

It requires very different skill sets. This has changed the way we recruit people, where we get them from. And, it still is a work in progress.

Q. In today’s digital work, what are the challenges that PR professionals face when they are devising communications strategies for clients? On the one hand, in the digital world one needs to work on a real time basis and be transparent as well, and on the other hand, there is also the privacy factor that needs to be kept in mind. How do PR agencies maintain the balance?

As a PR company we try to manage and control brand reputations of our clients in markets around the world and still maintain consistent standards. It all requires a number of conditions. One is you require the time to plan, to think; it is a huge issue that we have with our clients in terms of how do we respond in real time when normally the whole control process is hierarchical in terms of approvals, etc. To address this issue we have developed particular training modules. For instance, to handle crisis issues we have developed something called the ‘FireBell’, a crisis simulator. This helps us make clients experience various crisis situations on a real time basis and explain what kind of different systems are required. We tell clients that they have to get used to the idea of decentralised control, have far more initiative locally and trust and support that as well.

So, speed is one key issue. Transparency is an absolutely another issue. The openness requirement is scary, but absolutely mandatory and getting our own people to understand that first of all is important. Then we need to get our clients to understand the rules of the road.

The third challenge is to be media neutral and making our own people as well as clients understand that they need to adopt a more integrated marketing approach. Thus, it is a very dynamic environment.

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