MSLGroup gains influence

MSLgroup Canada, and the pr industry as a whole, isn't immune to forces at play at agencies in other disciplines, especially when it comes to the demand from clients for comprehensive programs that hit all platforms.

Across MSL's PR counterparts big and small in Canada, developing in-house creative services has become an increasingly popular way to provide the one-stop offering clients are looking for. But MSLGroup is facing this demand by teaming up with its sister agencies instead.

In June, holding company Publicis Groupe added global leadership of MSLGroup to the duties of Arthur Sadoun, CEO of creative agency Publicis Worldwide, in an effort to create a stronger integrated offering. The alignment was strengthened by bringing on Guillaume Herbette shortly after, as both CEO of MSLGroup and EVP of Publicis Worldwide.

Gayla Brock-Woodland, president of MSLGroup Canada, says the effects of that move are already being seen in Canada, but that could be because the agency has had a bit of a head start. Brock-Woodland says she "must have had a crystal ball" when she spoke to strategy in May, just as the agency brought on former BCP director of reputation management Isabelle Dubé-Côté following BCP's merger with Publicis Montreal. At the time, MSL had already been collaborating more with Publicis Toronto, and she said she hoped her new hire would help to continue that trend with its Montreal office.

"The key factor to our success is being more strongly integrated with our sister agencies," Brock-Woodland says. "Yes it's about scale, but it's also about having expertise on every part of an integrated offering. They're going to have best-in-class creative solutions and assets in big data, insights and all the other spaces that are part of crafting an effective strategy for the client. But it's a two-way exchange, and ad agencies in general want what we've got, because what we bring is just as essential to the customer journey."

Rising to the top and grabbing the second-ever PR Agency of the Year Gold is no small feat. But Brock-Woodland is familiar with taking steps to stand out in crowded environments.

"Competition for business is intense right now, mostly because there are more people than ever involved in competing for it," Brock-Woodland says. "What's changed in PR is our clients, more and more, are in the marketing departments, and they measure our value in a very different way. They want to understand our unique value and our impact on the brand and commerce."

While PR is primarily an earned media game, paid social is an increasingly important part of its purview. For MSL, much like the industry at large, that has meant increasing its digital expertise, including specialists and a new social and digital lead, former Harbinger VP Ian Giles. But for Brock-Woodland, becoming experts on social media influencers and utilizing them across paid, earned and owned channels has been key.

"The whole industry is focused on [influencers] right now, and that's great for us, because that's our home base, and it's given us increased value in the marketing mix," Brock-Woodland says. "Influencers have exploded and become the rock stars of PR. They have this grassroots social currency that makes them the best at commanding attention from the right demographic, and specializing in finding exactly the right influencer for the right brand has made us just as valuable."

MSLGroup's U.S. arm took home a Grand Prix in Public Relations at Cannes this summer for the blockbuster "#LikeAGirl" campaign for Always. Here in Canada, the agency reached out to individual influencers as well as non-profits focused on women, getting "#LikeAGirl" trending in Toronto by 9 a.m. on the day of the campaign's launch, before it had done so anywhere in the U.S. And for Pantene, the agency showed it not only understands who the best Canadian influencers for their clients would be, but also how they create their content and connect with an audience (see cases on next page).

"[Influencers are] very powerful tools but also very independent, so understanding how to identify that right influencer is just about experience," Brock-Woodland says. "We just do a lot of it, and that has made us leaders in making that relationship work for both the influencer and the brand."

Between makeup tutorials, new product unboxings and fashion advice, the lifestyle, health and beauty categories are tailor-made for social influencers. That's why MSL has made a point of bringing in new hires this year who not only have backgrounds in those categories, but proven understanding of the mechanics and strategies that are effective in influencer relations. The agency has been able to stay on a path of double-digit growth in its lifestyle and beauty business over the past three years, resulting in expanded mandates with existing clients like P&G.

While traditional media relations might be less sexy in a world of social influencers and integrated campaigns, MSL is still seeing huge demand for more traditional programs, especially in B2B as the tech sector continues to boom. A growing marketplace and crowded media landscape means it's getting harder to stand out, so Brock-Woodland expects to see more of its consumer-facing tactics used in B2B. That means the same expertise it has been cultivating, for lifestyle brands or with influencer relations, is just as applicable to those spaces.

"I think PR is being called upon more and more to generate conversation and also to make a real impact on consumer decision-making," Brock-Woodland says. "It's not enough that you're spreading a message and creating awareness, you have to make a really strong connection with consumers, and that's what we've proven we can do. Now that we've developed that reputation, we're a magnet for that kind of work."