I find myself doing a lot of PR jobs lately, which has made me realise two things. One, what exactly it is PR agencies do, and two, that advertising as we know it is officially dead. In the analogue age – or more specifically in the days before Facebook – reaching your target audience was a straightforward numbers game. You had a bag of money out which you would invest 25% in concept development and production, while the remaining 75% would go to your media agency that would use it to purchase a woefully unimaginative media mix for it, consisting of TV, radio and print. If the media guys felt a little crazy, maybe they would even throw in some outdoor. But however boring, this standard media palette would get you a guaranteed number of GRPs and therefore potential customers reached. You could play with the ratio of TV, print, radio and outdoor a little depending on your target audience and objectives, but in general the formula would work every time without exception. And if sales unexpectedly failed to increase in spite of your campaign efforts, either the sales department screwed up or the product was simply crap to begin with. But either way, the Math of Reach would always hold.

Advertising as we know it is officially dead

Nowadays, things aren’t so one-dimensional anymore. With the rise of social media, the once untouchable division between production and media spending is no longer sacred. Every week or so, another campaign explodes virally on Facebook without any significant money spent on media. Recent examples are the Dollar Shave Club and, of course, Kony 2012. If your idea is good enough or your protagonist controversial enough, in theory you don’t need a massive media budget anymore to get noticed.

Mercedes Benz demonstrated a perfect understanding of these new world mechanics when they developed this amazing campaign to promote their fuel cell powered concept car. Sure, the boys in Stuttgart probably had a euro or two at their disposal to support this marketing gem, but with an idea this impactful they could have simply sent out a press release headed “we’ve made an invisible car” and start giving each other ‘hoch fünfs’ over a crate of Warsteiner. Of course they probably spent the equivalent of a medium-sized African country’s GNP on production, but boy is the result spectacular – not to mention conceptually bulletproof. So much so, it generated nearly nine million YouTube views in less than a month.

The invisible car campaign comes to show that in today’s communication landscape, a strong idea is just as powerful as – if not more powerful than – a big media budget. Advertising has become PR, PR has become social, and social has become advertising. And so brand managers collectively add ‘social media’ or worse – ‘a viral idea’ – to their deliverables wish list these days, all hoping to become the next Old Spice. Nothing wrong with a little daydreaming, as long as you realise Facebook isn’t a magical channel that will reach millions of people for free. Because all great campaigns – traditional or modern – have one thing in common, and that is a good idea. In that sense the essence of our business is still very much alive.