What a CMO needs from PR – Narratives, Creativity and Difficult Questions

A few months ago in a New York boardroom of one of the world’s leading PR agencies, a senior strategist told me, “You know the biggest change that the PR Industry needs to embrace is the changing face of the buyer … no longer is it communications that we need to sell to but the CMO.”

This week, with my CMO hat on, I will address this very topic at the World PR Forum in Oslo. There is a simple answer, in my opinion, and its all centered around narratives, creativity and being asked difficult questions.

One of the biggest changes in the last decade for a CMO is the choice of vendors and suppliers they can now partner with to achieve their ambitions.

A decade ago, if you could afford it, much of your marketing success was dependent on the partnership you developed with one or several agencies who would develop strategies, creative concepts and also execution plans to achieve your ambitions.

Today however whilst agency partnerships are still crucial for many, the very existence, value and business model of agencies is being questioned.

This is best illustrated looking at the share price performance of the world’s largest agency groups over the last 12 months compared to their now industry partners in digital advertising and technology spaces.

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Whilst the large agency groups have been and continue to go through their own digital transition many believe this has simply not been fast enough to embrace the pace of change that digital channels and technology platforms have made possible.

As a CMO I sit here with 24 different marketing technology providers and a large share of my budget being spent on the digital duopoly of Google and Facebook but I still find partnerships with various agencies a key part of realizing our objectives.


One of the biggest challenges those agencies can help you with is the ability to shape your company narrative.

Some industries move quicker than others but all companies survival is dependent on the way they navigate the future.

Many CMOs whilst dealing with the messaging of today are on a journey of taking a brand and a market from where it is today to where it will be tomorrow.

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This is often the case for technology companies whose products maybe ahead of their time or at least ahead of their markets.

These markets are made up of various persona’s they are targeting who all have various pains, gains, and jobs to be done.

Truly understanding these persona’s and the messaging needed to take them from where the market is today to where the company needs the market to be in the future is a key task I expect of all agency partners. And the ability to execute this messaging across all channels; paid, earned, shared and owned is a must.

For PR agencies, who have historically operated in the earned media space I think it is important not be defined by this only but take the storytelling powers of the earned approach and be able to execute successfully in today’s multichannel world.

The development of your company narrative is not easy and may take some time to develop but should, in the end, be based on a cultural truth, an industry truth, and a product truth which when combined can be very powerful.


Even with the best company narrative, without creative concepts which clearly separate you from the competition, it will be a hard struggle.

This is where your agency partner often excels and where in-house teams typically struggle.

Creativity takes time, talent and focus. Whilst the talent is there in most organizations it is often hard to find the time and the focus to do great creative work whilst you are in the midst of handling all the tactical execution of marketing strategy.

Over the last few years, we have been lucky enough to work with the talented team at Edelman Deportivo. Their “culture first” approach to creativity ensures that they bring the outside world to us and make our team aware of the stories our market personas may want to hear and not necessarily the stories we want to tell.

Whilst this approach often leads to tension in the creative process and the need to take risks the results it can generate are truly impressive.

Difficult Questions

The marketing and media industries are full of egos. Some brands and their leaders seem invincible but as we know from recent stories such as Kodak, Nokia, Toys r Us market leadership is often a temporary phenomenon and as such we all need to remain just a little humble.

What I appreciate from my agency partners is not a stroking of our brand ego in order to win the business but a barrage of difficult questions about our product, our market and a healthy skepticism about why anyone would care about us.

From these difficult questions and the answers, they bring forth comes a relationship between a brand leader and its agency partner that can be truly powerful in terms of consistent creativity and the achievement of your business goals.

So there you have it. In my opinion, agencies have a super important role in helping any CMO achieve their ambitions. Just make sure you are helping shape that persona-based narrative, you push the limits of creativity finding the stories people want to hear and you ensure you ask those difficult questions.


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