Q&A: Weber Shandwick’s Polansky on content and offline conversations

May 28, 2012  |  Chris Powell  |  Comments

It has been a standout month for Weber Shandwick, which was recently named global PR agency for McCain Foods and landed both PepsiCo’s Diet Pepsi assignment and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Bid Committee. It’s president Andy Polansky, a 2010 inductee into the PR News Hall of Fame, has been with the Interpublic-owned agency for more than 25 years—the past eight in his current global role.

On a brief stop in Toronto last week, Polansky spoke with Marketing about the growing focus on content development, and exactly how much influence offline conversations have today.

Weber Shandwick is placing considerable emphasis on the areas of social, digital and content. Can you provide a sense of how those specialities fit into the overall operation?
When you look at how the media landscape is being transformed, it’s transforming our business at the same time. I would say that 20-25% of our overall business is in the digital/social realm. That plays out a little bit differently depending on the geography and the practice area, but it shows you the dramatic growth we’ve seen [in this space] over the last couple of years. It’s been the biggest growth driver in our business overall. It’s really about working in multiple channels across many different disciplines. More and more, clients are asking us to develop content for them that can be put out across multiple channels. We still have a very strong core business in the traditional sense, but what is essentially our core business now is digitally and socially oriented.

How does that 20-25% figure compare with the industry as a whole?
We are a clear market leader in digital and social, [and] we got there by investing. We expect all our people to be savvy when it comes to digital and social, but we have 400 people on our team who specialize in that arena.

We do a lot in the realm of community management: we manage more than 75 Facebook pages where we’re actively engaging with our clients’ stakeholders; we actively manage more than 50 Twitter handles that clients are using for customer engagement. It’s a practice that has quite a bit of scale, and has helped us take market share from our competitors.

So many marketing disciplines want to own the social/content space. Why does PR have the inside track?
Telling stories essentially cuts to the heart of what public relations people have always done. What’s changing is how you do that across so many different platforms. If you look at marketing services spend in a broad sense, public relations firms are taking share [from competitors] given some of these trends.

What are some of the hallmarks of a standout 21st century PR firm?
What we’re finding is that clients more and more are looking for specialization—subject matter expertise, deep sector expertise. [For example] we have 20 PhD’s in our firm that understand the science behind the medicine, and that informs our thinking in terms of how to engage stakeholders so they understand therapies and technology. A technology client expects you to understand not just technology in a broad sense, but its specific business. If it’s a semi-conductor client, they expect you to understand semi-conductors in depth.

It used to be that professional journalists were your primary target, but today’s consumers get information from a wide variety of sources: social media, bloggers etc. Has there been a pronounced shift in how you engage those people?

Some things have changed and some things haven’t. You still want to understand how to build advocacy, you still want to understand how to reach out to influential people, wherever they may be in the offline and online environment. It’s still true today—notwithstanding all the focus on digital and social, which is clearly a big difference for clients in different industries—that most of the word-of-mouth conversations that influence buying decisions still happen offline. It’s important to be cognizant of that and incorporate it into the thought processes and how you’re advising clients. What has changed, of course, is the platforms and the way you disseminate information and engage with consumers directly in the online environment.

Can you summarize how things are going with the Canadian operation?
We are in a growth mode in Canada. [President] Greg Power’s been on board for about 18 months as our leader and we’re seeing great momentum in the business. It’s true across the country: we have a vibrant operation in Montreal, we’ve brought in some new leaders in our different practice areas, we’re seeing very robust growth in healthcare and we’re winning a lot of business. Any time you see that type of exponential growth, it’s impressive and suggests that we are taking market share and taking the best people. I hope to be up here even more often and see the success as we evolve.

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