“So, you do advertising?” No. Let me explain...

“We are a communications strategy firm,” I respond after someone asks me what I do for a living.  “We do PR, media relations, brand and marketing strategies, social media programs, internal communications and a bunch of other things.” 

“So, you do advertising?” 

Not really.  Ad agencies do a lot of things my firm doesn’t. For example, they have media buyers who spend their days finding the right advertising opportunities for their clients to buy.

But it’s always been amazing to me how many people ask if I’m in advertising after I tell them the short version of what I do.  A lot of folks assume that if someone pays you to help companies and organizations communicate, then you must do advertising. 

To be fair, the lines are a little blurry between ad agencies and communications/PR firms.  They often work closely together and share a common focus on key messages and target audiences.  Both types of firms also tie their work into the client’s overall brand strategy.  In fact, that brand strategy might have been developed by either the ad agency or the communications/PR firm.

One way to distinguish between the two types of firms is this: Advertising agencies buy the opportunity to spread their client messages. This includes buying advertising time on TV or a web radio station, or ad space such as outdoor billboards or on a game you play on your smart phone, for example.  PR firms sometimes buy such opportunities (example: buying a corporate sponsorship opportunity for their client) but most of the time they get their clients’ messages out via unpaid opportunities. This could include getting coverage in the press, securing a speaking opportunity at a conference, placing a company executive on the board of a non-profit organization, or managing the client’s social media presence via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. 

One of the best values a communications/PR firm can bring to client is to know when a piece of the overall strategy calls for an ad agency.  Many times in my career I’ve told the client that to make the whole program work, we need to include a major advertising component to run in tandem with the programs my firm is executing.  Ad agencies often do the same thing, recognizing that PR and communications expertise is an essential complement to the advertising program.

Hand in hand we go – PR and advertising.  Two different but related means to the same end: influencing a target market through compelling messaging.

- Eric Whittington