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The Changing Face of Fashion PR

Twelve of the industry's biggest public relations authorities speak to BoF about the shifts upending the fashion communications business.
Source: Instagram @kcdworldwide, @framenoir, @aquazzura
By
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — In 1996, two years before KCD opened its first office in Paris, the late journalist Amy Spindler described the partners of the fashion PR agency as "long-term strategists." She added that "the metamorphosis of KCD can be seen as a microcosm of the metamorphosis of fashion itself," likening their list of designer clients to personalities akin to politicians and movie stars. The article "changed everything for us," remembers Ed Filipowski, co-chairman of KCD.

KCD is changing yet again and the shifts reflect a fashion PR landscape that has, once again, changed just as radically as the wider business of fashion itself. As the rise of the internet has transformed media, it has helped to turn fashion into a new pillar of popular culture while raising existential questions for legacy publishers whose circulation figures are now dwarfed by the social media followings of key celebrity influencers. PR agencies across the industry have been forced to reimagine their strategies, their geographical reach and sometimes the very essence of the services they offer, with some growing new capabilities — from social media to content creation — and expanding their footprints beyond Europe and the US.

Even the term “publicist” has been called into question. Starting in September, KCD’s London office dropped the term in favour of “talent and brand manager.” The idea was born out of a conversation between Filipowski and Txampi Diz, former senior vice president and managing director of KCD Paris who joined Balmain as chief marketing officer last month. (He remains an advisor to the agency's executive board.)

KCD's new Paris showroom | Source: Courtesy

September also marked the opening of KCD’s new Showroom 13 in Paris and Showroom 118 in London, both evolutions of the traditional agency showroom model. The spaces will be available to clients and non-clients for meet and greets, pre-collection appointments and VIP dressing. Another location will open in New York in December when the agency’s headquarters move to its new space adjacent to Hudson Yards.

But KCD isn't the only agency that's evolving. In September, the luxury fashion-focused agency Karla Otto merged with K2, an Asian experiential marketing and events agency, under a newly formed umbrella entity, The Independents, which plans to expand its collection of companies. Modus and the UK division of the New York-based BPCM also merged to better serve clients on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The notion of calling what we do PR is completely outdated,” says Daniel Marks, chief creative officer of The Communications Store. “The only thing that hasn’t changed about this industry is that it’s about relationships and about trust.”

BoF spoke to twelve of the industry's brightest public relations gurus about the shifts upending the business of fashion PR and what they’re doing to adapt.

THE END OF FASHION’S PR FORMULA

The cookie-cutter approach that prioritises print is dead.

Brian Phillips, founder and president, Black Frame and Framework: "The job of a fashion PR agency used to be very connected to [loaning samples to be photographed by fashion magazines]. The relevance of that process has been thrown into question. What is the most powerful way of showing your ideas and your product that is also the most cost-effective? Look at magazines and it's a tricky moment with ad pages down."

Vanessa Von Bismarck, founder and partner, BPCM: "When Carrie [Ellen Phillips] and I started, the clients that we had were only interested in print press and events and bringing customers into the stores… I think the shift started happening about 4 years ago, 5 years ago. Some of the younger brands that came to us were saying they were not interested in print anymore, they wanted to do something else."

Rachna Shah, partner and managing director, KCD: " There was a silo. It was communications, PR and events. The other side was marketing and customer experience. And then that really did merge. Victoria's Secret is a good example of this — they always created their own content and then shared it for people to tell the story… I think fashion brands and luxury brands realised they could do the same."

Lisa Frank, partner, Derris: "What is the story: why are we telling it? That was what we felt was the missing piece. There were agencies that were doing this, telling the brand or business story to consumer-facing press, but there weren't really any companies out there that were talking to all the different constituents."

Pierre Rougier, founder, PR Consulting: "Why is everybody in the media fighting for exclusives? A 30 second exclusive is what you're going to be fighting for. The reader doesn't care because 95 percent of those who will read about it, will read it on Instagram or social media as a pick up from someone else."

Lucien Pagès, founder, Lucien Pagès: "It is a transition moment… The print won't disappear, it will just become more exclusive, more special things you want to collect… I've never seen so many magazines photographed for Instagram."

Karla Otto, founder, Karla Otto: "Everybody needs online exposure, everybody needs everything now and that's the reality and that's why it has become so much more demanding for businesses to perform very well, but also for the people who are involved in creating their image."

AN INTEGRATED APPROACH

Digital media has blurred the lines between disciplines like public relations and marketing.

Cindy Krupp, founder, Krupp Group: "Nothing on its own is moving the needle. Everything layered together is what's moving the needle. That's the amazing thing about media being so fragmented: if something's not working in a traditional PR sense, we'll throw it at celebrity or throw it at digital. We quickly morph."

Ed Filipowski, co-chairman, KCD: "When the position of [chief marketing officers] became important inside the luxury houses — there was a point when that happened, I would say about six to eight years ago… our direct reports, many of them became CMOs. Their thinking went fuller and wider and 360 in a different way. And we had to adapt to meet their needs and that shifted the thinking."

Von Bismarck: "A lot of clients want to jump into influencer campaigns, but their website is a disaster and their Instagram is almost non-existent. We have to look at their retail and whether that speaks to the story that they are trying to tell… Media planning on its own is not enough anymore."

Phillips: "Even as a publicist, you have to think like a strategist in the sense that you know the way that you're advising and guiding your clients towards a more cohesive and clear message borrows a lot from marketing discipline… One of the one of the critical turning points for us was when Humberto [Leon] and Carol [Lim] became creative directors of Kenzo and we really started to transform from purely a PR firm to a company that was invested in the whole strategic repositioning of that brand."

STORYTELLING & CONTENT CREATION

As communication goes direct to consumer, authentic storytelling trumps traditional advertising and content creation is critical.

Frank: "We are starting content, we are diving into what that means and it's different for every client. We are figuring out how we can be helpful. I do believe certain things, like social media, should stay within a brand."

Rougier: "We're not so excited about doing digital content ourselves. That's not what we do and I think there are people who do that very, very well… A brand has to be aspirational somehow and it comes [from] the centre of an amazing creative vision, a designer at the centre and amazing product… There's less and less room for smokescreen… It's harder and harder to fool customers. You fool them once, you don't fool them again."

Shah: "We can be more effective at giving the bigger picture, and driving the strategy and the content planning without literally being the staffing to write a post for you… A lot of what we're working on now is strategic: content initiatives, pulling out for them their big points of the year, as opposed to us trying to maintain their day to day… We've realised that one of our specialties is taking apart the fashion show, digitally and amplifying it. We did a whole ad campaign at an after party."

One of the big questions that we have is: how do we fit into this data, consumer acquisition, CRM strategy that all brands have to have now?

THE RISE OF DATA

Agencies have more access to real-time performance metrics than ever before.

Shah: "There were always numbers associated with editorial — circulation, advertising value. Even from a TV standpoint, whatever type of media, there was always numbers. How we analyse and present numbers is very different now, because it is not just a reflection of what the media outlet is saying the numbers are… How do people engage with it? And how does it get propagated? We apply the social media idea of 'likes' and comments and follow ups… All of those kinds of words have become part of our analysis."

Rougier: "Marketing has become mainly CRM and consumer acquisition; yes, social media and, yes, data analysis. One of the big questions that we have to answer very often is: how do we fit into this data, consumer acquisition, CRM strategy that all brands have to have now? It's shifted the position of PR."

Daniel Marks, chief creative officer, The Communications Store: "Data and consumer insight is unbelievably useful, but it is not the be all and end all… There's no question that access to data is phenomenally important to use. We go armed into campaigns with a greater knowledge than we ever did before. You can run amazing campaigns on Facebook… [but] people are only coming to find you on social media if you are exciting to find in the first place. Then those platforms and all of that data gives you a chance to amplify that message."

GOING GLOBAL OR STAYING LOCAL

Agencies are facing pressure to be both global and local.

Rougier: "America is a big land, there is a lot of work for us here. Of course, you need to scale up and we've grown the business aggressively in the last years. Global has become local now. It is interesting to entertain thoughts about how to branch out in other areas or partner with the people or agencies or companies that do extensions of what we do, but it has to be the right thing."

Bismarck: "A few years ago, all the focus was on dressing celebrities and getting coverage. Today we find that we are brokering brand partnerships with celebrities and influencers. We have opened an arm of our beauty, influencer and digital divisions in Los Angeles to answer the overwhelming demand for those services."

Krupp: "A lot of the brands that come to us are international brands that are looking to develop their brand in the US market and are looking for someone with an expertise in the US market. And that's a big part of our appeal. It's very difficult for an agency to be experts in every market and hit the nail on the head across the globe in that way."

EVOLVING THE ORGANISATION

Agencies are diversifying their in-house talent.

Otto: "You really need as many resources as you can, and an exchange of ideas and knowledge. You can do everything on your own and I have done that for the last 35 years, but also, when you join forces...we can grow much faster and much stronger."

Marks: "At the heart of the business, we have people who still do a similar job to what we did 20 years ago, which is nurture relationships with people in the industry. We now have a lot of more strings to our bow. We have a head of purpose [focused on sustainability]. Our creative innovation and digital offer has expanded exponentially… We have a studio, we are doing packaging design, advertising campaigns, we have our influencer engagement team, we have our VIP and events team… Our brands have to be best in class with a real purpose, and it's our job to help hand-hold them through to that consumer."

Bismarck: "When I look at talent, which was hard in a PR world of ten years ago already, today it is becoming much harder. You are much better going off with a wildcard [candidate] that has gone from PR agency to advertising to a small creative talent agency."

Krupp: "We're constantly throwing the ball between divisions. And amping up [for example], 60 percent digital and 30 percent celebrity and constantly shifting the matrix of how much we're dedicating to a brand based on what their needs are… We've continued to morph and grow with [our clients]. Being a boutique agency and not being one of the massive behemoth agencies, I'm able to be a lot more nimble."

Frank: "If you want to have a good point of view to provide our clients — that diversity of backgrounds that our company has — the hiring is really tough. Our goal was to combine two different functions. There is definitely a learning curve."

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