The Curt Flood of PR?



Baseball purists will remember Curt Flood. He was a superb centerfielder for the great St. Louis Cardinals teams of the 1960s. Grossly dissatisfied with the free agent clause in existence at the time (which forbade players from testing the open market to obtain the highest salary possible for their talents), Flood took Major League Baseball to court.

 Sadly, Flood lost his case, turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain and died penniless (although he did open the floodgates that resulted in today's players earning truly obscene salaries).

While I have no desire to end up like Curt Flood, I do believe PR needs someone with his guts to stand-up and challenge our industry's version of baseball's old free agent system.

I'm referring specifically to two long-standing sacred cows:

-  The don't ask/don't tell relationship between global brands and mega agencies in which the former turns a blind eye allowing the latter to represent multiple direct competitors (something they simply will not allow small and medium-sized firms to practice).

– The cozy relationship between mega agencies (and their mega advertising dollars and fees) and the industry media properties that host annual awards programs.

Since I addressed the first issue in yesterday's blog, I thought I'd turn my full attention to the second transgression.

Lest readers think my anti-awards blog is merely sour grapes, let me assure you otherwise. I'm a big believer in awards and am proud to say that Peppercom has many multiple agency of the year citations and yours truly was just named the PR News Blogger of the year.

But, and this is a BIG but, the awards' programs are unfairly structured to favor the large agencies. Why? Because there is no tiered pricing system.

That means a struggling mom-and-pop firm has to pony up the exact same entry fee as a well-heeled Ketchum, Edelman or Weber. As a result, each and every category is TOTALLY dominated by submissions from the big guys.

Having served as a judge for Holmes, PR News, the Silver Anvils, PR Week and others, I can tell you this is 100 percent accurate.

In fact, I reached my breaking point a few years back when, as a proud PR Week Awards judge, I was assigned the technology category to evaluate. I was horrified to see that, of the 70 or so submissions, more than half came from TWO large agencies. I immediately blogged about the gross inequity of the system (without naming any names) and was summarily fired as a judge (a distinction I'm proud of, and would like to see engraved on my tombstone).

My blog at the time also incited a heated back-and-forth with Paul Holmes, who scoffed at my uneven playing field hypothesis and assured readers that the best program always won. To which I responded then (and now) with a polite, but firm, 'bunk'!

Judges are senior executives who are extremely busy, tired and distracted when they sit down to review hundreds and hundreds of submissions. And, trust me, after reviewing the 31st submission from Porter Novelli in a given category, the typical judge sighs, throws up her hands and say, “OK, I'm beat. Let's give it to these guys and go have a drink.”

That last comment will elicit howls of protest from the establishment, but it's the god's honest truth. I've seen it happen countless times. And, here's the shame of it all: there's an easy fix. Institute tiered pricing a la The Council of PR Firms. If the tiny Acme PR firm is charged $895 per submission, raise the rate for midsized firms like mine to, say, $1,250. And, hike the entry fee for the Weber Shandwick's to a cool $2,500 per entry.

Sadly, that'll never happen because:

A) The big agencies (who also happen to be the big advertisers) will scream.
B) The media properties who depend on the awards' fees for revenue, would lose money.

I find it ironic that we pride ourselves on being the moral compass of business and industry, yet routinely turn a blind eye to what amounts to a PR version of the old baseball free agent system.

Maybe, just maybe, someone in a position of power is finally awakening to the gross inequities of the industry awards programs. The PRSA Big Apple awards, for example, just expanded its criteria to allow programs budgeted at $100k per annum and less to be entered. That's a start. But, it's the pricing that's at the core of this particular rotten apple. And, that's what needs to be changed and right away.

So, have it editors, reporters, publishers and big agency leaders. Convince me that tiered pricing isn't necessary and that Obscure, Tiny & Partners has the exact same odds of winning the 2012 best consumer product launch of the year as Porter Novelli. If my readers buy that, then I have some property in Las Vegas they may be interested in purchasing as well.


7 thoughts on “The Curt Flood of PR?

  1. The late Mr. Bernays was a solo consultant, so I doubt he would have attempted to organize his own awards program. Your theory is spot on, Ghost. But, the devil’s in the details and there simply isn’t enough time in the day for agency owners to create their own awards program. Maybe Ghost Media could create the Caspar Awards for midsized and small agencies?

  2. Would you prefer Georgia Southern? Either way, you ought to be redefining the landscape to create your own categories and platforms.
    What would Bernays do? I think he’d use his PR savvy to overcome these obstacles. I mean, who better than a bunch of PR pros to create that legitimate challenge out of nothing? That’s what we do, baby.

  3. I like the idea of a competing program Ghost but, alas, the same resource challenge would rear its ugly head. CEOs of small and midsized firms simply don’t have the bandwidth needed to create a legitimate challenge to Holmes, PR Week and the others. Youngstown State, eh?

  4. You should create your own competing awards platform. Surely, there must be a number of small- to mid-sized agencies in the same boat and expressing the same discontent with the bias toward the bigger shops that exists under the current paradigm.
    It might be a logistical challenge to create and stage such a program from scratch (but, hey, you do work in PR — so you inherently know how to find Johnnie Walker Red in a dry county in Tennessee), but I have to wonder whether changing the landscape in this way would work to the advantage of the smaller-sized firms. I mean, no one expects Youngstown State to beat Notre Dame — but the former is a perennial football powerhouse for its size.

  5. Superb point, Richard. Thanks. You are, of course, 100 percent correct. The big agencies can devote the resources to prepare hundreds, if not thousands, of award entries each and every year. Small and midsized competitors cannot. Game. Set. Match.

  6. Steve –
    You make a very valid financial point on awards but ignored the bigger inquity — time. The amount of unbillable time devoted to award competition has a significant impact on an agency’s bottom line. And that impact is greater than any benefit from being a “winner.” The true winners are those who don’t support awards programs which really are only designed to be profit centers!
    Richard Newman