The differences between advertising and PR continue to blur.

Both need creativity, storytelling and data.

Thoughts and lessons for my students
14 min readOct 5, 2015


An older and somewhat dated distinction.

As advertising becomes more about earning attention and creating owned content, and PR agencies do more video and creative production, it gets harder to distinguish between the two — other than the typical examples that might compare corporate PR or IR to an ad agency’s creative department. In the past, PR was about reputation management through third party influencers; advertising was about buying media and having more control over the message. Not anymore.

For students, the question becomes:

“What is the difference and how do I decide which path to pursue?”

Left-brain vs. right brain?

More corporate/less corporate?

I asked a host of industry pros and C-level execs from agencies (advertising and PR) as well as clients to weigh in. Here is the conversation. From Facebook.

Keep in mind, these are just opinions. But many are good ones.

Michael Howard (former CD, Arnold) I love this topic so so so so so much! The role of PR today needs to be increasingly creative (per your previous post about adblocking). And creative needs to be increasingly mindful of how to leverage PR. Indeed, the practice of thinking of creative in terms of a press release, is becoming more and more widespread.

Personally, as a creative I’d almost rather have a great PR person working hand-in-hand with me than a media department with a jillion bucks to spend.

Edward Boches Look at Tim Cawley and Eric Montague new company Sleek Machine. PR and creative. Ideas that matter at Internet speed.

Michael Howard Totally! And even in a more strictly corporate sense, if companies want to get Mashable or Buzzfeed publishing their content, they need to think about the PR function in new ways, too. And yeah, there are always going to be dry “corporate” jobs in PR. But the same holds true in advertising. The fun you have is the fun you decide to have.

Edward Boches Yeah but working at Fleishman Hillard is a lot different than working at Chiat Day

Michael Howard No doubt! But who knows? Maybe today’s media landscape demands something more from PR people (in the same ways it demands new thinking from ad people). I’d be curious if that’s a concern in the “Big PR Biz

Edward Boches Michael Howard I think the q that students have is what should they major in. That might have less to do with the work that gets produced and more to do with the environments and kinds of people who work in them.

Michael Howard Sorry. I’m overthinking it

Edward Boches No, you validate that there are lots of similarities and that you need both skills in either industry. If you had a Venn diagram of adv and PR 15 years ago, there would be little common area. But today, the common area is larger. So identifying distinctions is harder

Tim Cawley (Founder, CD Sleek Machine) We recently cast a video campaign, not on looks or acting chops, but strictly on who had an interesting/sizeable online presence that we could PR at the launch of the effort. It’s a new way of thinking.

It’s exciting when you make an idea and you have all these ways to get it into the world besides paid media.

Mike’s Ant-Soft Drink stuff was like that. It’s a great time to be a creative. Most interesting idea usually seems to win

Jonathan Anastas (Global Chief of Digital and Social, Activision) Technically, I still sort of think the line should be the end audience: advertising is direct communication to the consumer and PR is about talking to the people who talk to the consumer (e.g. writers, bloggers and influencer as target audience, who, in turn, talk to the consumer). But even that line is too blurry and violated today. I recently sat through a PR agency review and came out saying “they (the PR agencies) are so afraid of looking old fashioned, they actually talked about everything BUT PR.” They pitched for everything except what the current PR agency was tasked with. The swim lanes are not clear at all. And “content” as well as “influencers” and social are the biggest battleground. That said, I can even name three brand TV campaigns created by the PR agencies on air right now.

Dan Weingrod (Digital Strategy and Innovation, Bose) Here’s another way to think about it.

PR is the new media department. PR depts. are more and more being tasked with activating earned media channels, which means not only creating the content, but getting it out there, making sure it moves and even being accountable for it.

Now, to your point, there is plenty of creativity there and it is some. Of the creative roles that more “traditional” creatives used to control. The opportunity for creative or advertising departments is now more on really building the branding, messaging and experiences that PR, in the role of a media dept., then helps to activate. Both, to my mind, are exciting and complex opportunities.

Anthony Butler (Interactive Strategy, IBM) Indeed, creativity is being more and more applied to garnering attention through earned media versus paid media. In particular the humor, that would applied to campaigns like the Little Caesars spots from the 90s or even the Bud Light ‘Real Men of Genius’ radio campaign is now being directed towards making videos that will go viral. I can’t recall seeing a really funny campaigning TV for months now. Maybe as a result of my TV viewing habits, but still…

‪I think advertising still has more permission to be funnier and politically incorrect than PR, which is funded by the corporation rather than the brand or business. The channel strategy everyone seems to be employing, however, blurs that distinction.

Edward Boches I think this is a key point: “more funny and politically incorrect than PR which is funded by the corporation rather than the brand or business.”

Bob Minihan (Chief Creative Officer, Partners and Simons) Oh, advertising seems to pay better. Don’t know how many PR agencies I’ve seen run by a charismatic man or woman, and staffed by brilliant 26 year olds working 24/7 while being paid WalMart wages. But that’s just the opinion of one observer.

David Armano (Global Strategy Director, Edelman)

Ad agencies rarely handle crisis situations or work directly with CEOs. PR firms dive in here. The messier the better.

Edward Boches So do you think that in general it’s working with more corporate and reputation issues? And that is still the differentiator? Who is working on the VW problem? PR? Advertising? Both?

Rick Murray (former President, Edelman Digital) I think it’s several factors. One, the understanding that we live in a multi-stakeholder world where all messaging and actions to / with all audiences is interdependent; corporate comms and marketing aren’t separate anymore. Two, are speed and agility.

Ad agencies aren’t used to operating in an always on news cycle; Three, all the crap about spin to the contrary, good PR is more generally centered in truths you can fact check.

Lastly, and this is where advertising still wins… PR isn’t (yet) driven by numbers to the same extent advertising is. Part of that is budget driven, as we remain a rounding error in most budgets, but part is plain ignorance. We have to get smarter about analytics. It is happening, but at an all too glacial pace.

Edward Boches If you had a student who was unsure ask you — they like all things content, media, digital, etc. — how would you help them decide

Rebecca Rivera (Co Director 3 Percent Conference) Advertising is more (or should be) oriented around the creative product. PR folks can create content but strictly speaking, aren’t in the business of the kinds of ideas that define a brand. I respect what PR does and think it has immense value but chose advertising because I wanted my ideas to lead the way instead of amplifying the ideas of others.

Scott Monty (former Chief Social Media officer, Ford Motor Company) Both functions are creative in nature and both require (increasingly so) the art of storytelling in their practice — although few companies truly understand good storytelling yet. That’s a skill that will be valued by either side.

‪Also, both are relying more and more on data and analytics. Practitioners will need to exercise their ability to recognize and analyze trends and apply those observations to the storytelling process.

‪And communications is increasingly more of strategic value to the CEO, as David has indicated. It’s more than just crisis and reputation — it goes to the very core of how the business is run, decisions the executive team makes, and how ALL audiences — not just customers — are communicated to.

Richard Binhammer (Principal, Binhammer Consulting, formerly Golin Harris) Any company has 4 audiences: employees and suppliers; owners; customers; and, “communities of interest (which could geography and locations, politicians who regulate them, causes they support for whatever reason etc.).

Advertising is usually focused on communicating *to* customers.

Also tactically (besides the creative content storytelling points) PR includes “other” activities that communicate and build relationships *with* stakeholders (speeches, meetings or events with stakeholders, etc.). Advertising rarely steps into that realm.

Edward Boches Agree: Can you help me answer the Q to a student: How should he/she decide which career path to pursue? We all know differences and similarities in two fields. But what about the individual would lead her to one vs. the other

Richard Binhammer PR can involve communicating with more stakeholders and can also use a more diverse range of tactics that may speak to your reputation point. The student of PR can end up working across a broader range of business stakeholders and a broader range of tactics. They both involve content, creativity and analytics…although PR lags advertising on analytics.

Rick Murray I don’t think it’s one or the other anymore.

I think you want to join a forward thinking firm that’s doing great work for the kind of clients you’d kill to work with.

The best PR firms are playing in the advertising, CRM and shopper spaces today. The best ad agencies are winning awards with very PR-centric campaigns. The message should be to avoid working for any firm that can’t prove that it’s interested and investing in what’s new and what’s yet to come. That’s a dead end.

Claudia Caplan (Head of Corporate Business Development for MDC) I work with both our PR and advertising agencies at MDC and the holding company perspective lets me watch both. PR does indeed have specialty areas like IR and crisis but beyond that, the two are blending in interesting ways as earned and owned become as important as bought and social and experiential rise to the top. When I started as a copywriter, I never would have considered PR. Very different today.

Edward Boches So, Claudia Caplan, is there something about a kid’s interests, personality, skills, right brain or left brain, corporate or crazy, that would guide a direction or decision. Thanks.

Claudia Caplan For an art director, most ad agencies are considerably more sophisticated. For a writer, a creative technologist, a planner, a content producer, it really depends on whom you’ll be working with, the account, the company. Both are highly collaborative.

Ad agencies probably still have a higher tolerance for more out there types.

A lot of it has to do with trying to think about a career trajectory. Do you want to run a company? Do you eventually want to be on the client side? How strategic are you? Certainly PR is no longer journalism, that’s for sure.

Honestly wondering why the school is creating that dichotomy and how the courses would then differ.

Anthony Kalamut (Professor, Seneca College) Edward… Claudia nailed it here. Agencies still seem to hire based on skills.

‪Agencies still build bigger “ideas and strategy” and tend to be more media agnostic… that may change in time.

Interesting seeing the number of CDs, copywriters and content developers leaving agencies and being gobbled up by PR firms. There’s this simple truth; the most powerful method of communication is when advertising and PR are used together as part of a strategic integrated communication campaign. It will always be “why” before “how”.

Edward Boches Claudia Caplan Great comment and points. A: college programs lag the industry. We, progressive faculty, strive to compensate in our particular classes. But changing an entire major, requirements, etc. with tenured faculty and tedious curriculum committee procedures is deterrent to keeping up w recent changes. We cover all the content, and an enlightened student can get all that she needs but the choice of what to major in remains perplexing to some.

Stephen Larkin (Director of New Business, 180 LA) Edward, this is a great question. In my humble opinion, it’s all blended. The world has changed. And no industry has changed like our industry.

Traditional ad agencies are becoming irrelevant, just like traditional PR agencies are becoming irrelevant.

We can point to this shift with the emergence of social. It’s all about the content and the idea. It does not matter where it comes from or where it lives: social, PR or advertising. Creative companies need to become makers. At 180LA our mission is to get the world talking, and how do we shift the conversation. Sometimes it’s a film, social activation, or a digital first solution. We really don’t care. The idea has to address the ambitions of the brand. As you said, PR agencies are now hiring creative directors and strategist. As they should, these are the more progressive PR agencies. I believe the traditional advertising model is dead (as I’m sure we all do), however, it’s amazing to see these agencies revert back to what is safe and comfortable. If you want to see the 21st Century agency, look up Maker Studios (Disney bought them), the shit they do is amazing. They are just learning and if they chart the correct course, they will be formable competition for the social, PR and advertising agencies. While it’s the scariest of times for agencies, it’s also the most exciting. Buckle up.

Marc Lucas (Founder and Principal, Lucas Co)

In my experience of both, I’ve found advertising agencies are more comfortable making things and PR folks are more comfortable influencing things.

When PR people get into big production, they are usually out of their comfort zone. And many advertising people don’t really believe you can execute an idea solely by influencing other peoples’ positions and content.

George F. Snell III (EVP Digital and Content, Weber Shandwick)

Wow, totally disagree with this. We create live, original broadcasts that have gotten cable-TV size audiences. My agency manages the digital content creation for more than a hundred brands.

George F. Snell III My two cents: I find two differences emerging between PR and Advertising — and obviously this isn’t true for everyone, but I’m talking in broad strokes. The Ad folks create BRAND content and PR people create EDITORIAL content. PR is trying to infiltrate and influence the news cycles that powers media — both traditional and social. Ad people are trying to surround it. That’s the second difference: Ad folks are still buying disruptive and interruptive “advertising” — pre-roll, banner ads, TV commercials while PR is buying opt-in “advertising” — native advertising, SEO, social media augmentation and media partnerships. Ad people want impressions; PR people want engagement. I think we are well on our way into an era of traditional advertising decline. Consumers are numb to it and are actively trying to avoid it with ad blockers, DVRs, etc. Ad impressions are becoming essentially valueless. The real value comes in views, shares, and interactions. Both PR and Advertising need to focus on creating content people want — content that provides information, entertainment and/or news. Content focused on messages is the type of content no one wants.

Edward Boches

Most progressive ad agencies, Mullen, Forsman Bodenfors, BBH, CP&B, Droga5 are all doing: native advertising, SEO, social media augmentation, events, experiences, and media partnerships.

Bart Pavlovich Advertising agencies buy media space… PR agencies beg for media space…

George F. Snell III We have created an entire department of dozens of paid media experts across the United States that know how to get content viewed, shared and discussed. We use paid to power earned. It’s like writing a book. Your publisher pays to put it up on and in bookstores — because that’s where book buyers are. We do the same with digital content — we pay to put it in front of the right audiences so they can find it. And like a good book in the store, we rely on the quality of the content to get people to click on it — and to share it

Edward Boches Bart Pavlovich Very old way of thinking. I could point to 100 examples where that is not the case. Still, however, I am trying to get to professional perspectives for students trying to decide on a major. As majors are still more focused. Academia lags behind the industry.

Edward Boches George F. Snell III One challenge I hear is that content from ad agencies is more “creative” than from PR agencies only because ad shops are more likely destinations for the most talented. Not sure I agree with the comment or with the criteria we still use to define creative, but your thoughts welcome. Also…HOW should a student decide, not necessarily where to work, but what to major in? Does it even matter?

Tom Messner (Founder Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer Euro RSCG) If the question is which pays better, avoid PR and Ad agencies…..go with their clients.

George F. Snell III I’m not sure what you mean by “more creative,” Edward Boches. Both ad agencies and PR shops are moving toward each other. Soon it won’t matter what you call them. But if I were picking a major I’d go with robotics.

Edward Boches George F. Snell III what is background education of kids you hire to do/play creative content roles?

Bart Pavlovich Advertising agencies always think they’re creative yet 90% (or more?) of the ads you see are still crap…!!! Yep, if you want dosh, go with their clients!!

Mark DiMassimo (CEO and Chief Creative Officer at DiMassimo Goldstein)

Advertising, in my opinion, is a specialty sub-discipline within public relations. However, the institutions didn’t evolve that way, due mostly to the distortion of the mass marketing era, which ballooned advertising agencies. Now that the mass production/mass marketing economy is being rapidly overtaken by the direct economy and direct/social marketing, agencies are evolving toward the ideal. My advice would be to go someplace good, where what you love to do really matters. The label means less and less.

David Esrati (Chief Creative Officer, The Next Wave) Answer to students question: by the time you graduate- there will be very little difference- other than what accounting wants to call it. Crispin Porter + Bogusky used “how would this campaign be a press release” as a litmus test. With anyone able to be a content provider- the lines are blurred. ‪If you think there is a need for division between the two- maybe you aren’t ready for this field at all.

Edward Boches I know that. Challenge is what is taught and why. PR teaches crisis and reputation management and writing for corp comm. Probably press relations and media relations. Adv teaches branding, planning and creative. Students need more overlap and, as many suggested here, tech and data skills.

David Esrati There shouldn’t be any separation. Half the crisis and reputation management is because companies forget the basis of any good campaign is what McCann said ages ago- “Truth Well Told”. Stick to the truth- and tell it well- and PR and advertising go hand in hand. It’s only when the C level people with their MBA think they know how to make an extra buck that all this goes to hell.

Alec Kleinfeld (Sr. Art Director, ROAR) Having worked for both as a creative, the only real difference I noticed at my level (art director) was how the strategy was approached. Though not true in every situation, ad agency briefs tend to sell a product and PR agency briefs tend to sell an experience. The best solutions often end up being the same regardless of the brief: — selling a feeling. The two are drifting closer together as we all know. I had this conversation with a Publicis CEO once and it seems that most (if not all) agencies are /some kind of marketing agency with a different focus.

David Armano Edward Boches the overlap between corp communications and marketing is already underway. Edelman calls is “communications marketing” vs. PR.



Thoughts and lessons for my students

Documentary Photographer / Creative Director / Writer / Author / Original Partner, Chief Creative Officer MullenLowe US / Former Professor Boston University