PARIS — Faced with the new reality of canceled fashion shows, shrinking advertising budgets and suspended magazine shoots, public relations agencies are pivoting to adapt, branching out into areas as diverse as e-commerce, webinars, energy healing — and even cannabis happy hours.
Caitlin Shockley and Zaida Zamorano, cofounders of The Creative NYC, had barely inaugurated their Manhattan showroom when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Dubbed The Creative Atelier, it was designed to welcome press and buyers, acting as a hybrid wholesale showroom, coworking space and content studio for the agency’s jewelry and accessories brands.
“That was our organic plan before we knew that the coronavirus was going to take over,” Shockley recalled. Almost immediately, clients began to panic, so the business partners started brainstorming a solution: launching an e-commerce platform as a virtual counterpart to their physical showroom.
“While pausing everyone’s services was something that was certainly possible, in good conscience we couldn’t say that that was what was best for the brands. We kind of knew that they needed to keep going, so we just evolved accordingly,” Shockley explained.
“Many of them did not have the digital prowess to transition over solely to e-commerce in such a blink of an eye. Each brand had different needs. Some needed more photography assets, some needed just the overall organization, some people really hadn’t approached paid marketing before,” she continued. “So we kind of knew that we needed to almost prove to them that e-commerce was a viable solution and, I guess, that we just weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to hunker down and be a part of this with them.”
The pair embarked on a crash course in web design and e-marketing. “We kind of went into web site university,” recalled Zamorano, the agency’s head of business development. “Neither one of us has a tech background. We connected with a number of different freelancers to help us every time we hit a speed bump.”
By early May, the atelierallday.com site was up and running. It represents six brands — in addition to in-house label Atelier All Day — including some that are making their online debut in the U.S. market: Mexican luxury brand Tane Mexico 1942 and Matthia’s & Claire, a family-owned company based in Switzerland.
“Brands know that this is the right strategy and it’s the right time to use this very weird uncharted territory to their advantage, but I think they just need guidance. They need a friend there that’s going to hold their hand and really get into the nitty-gritty with them,” said Shockley, who is creative director of the site.
The Creative NYC is testing digital marketing practices — ranging from SEO to Google Ads, paid social ads, influencer placements and more — to help brands find what works for them.
“We’re strictly commission-based in this. It really is us investing in the success of our brands. We built the web site and the full platform on our dime. We are investing in all the paid marketing also on our dime, so nothing is coming from the brands themselves. It’s us kind of trying to make a proverbial gesture to them that says, ‘We’re in this with you,'” she said.
“I think we both felt like, well, we have to try, that’s all there is to do when things are uncertain,” Shockley said. “We’re just going to keep coming up with ideas to pivot, and luckily our brands trust us and we trust their products. It may be something that takes a while to really come together in a big way, because people are still very timid and uncertain about what’s going on in the world health-wise. But we think it’s definitely worth trying everything possible.”
The pandemic has also fast-tracked changes at BPCM. The agency, which works with the likes of Hermès, Staud, Tata Harper and Dom Pérignon, launched a cannabis division earlier this year and is partnering with a leading entrepreneur to create what it is teasing as “a new category of cannabinoid wellness products.”
It has also developed a virtual gathering platform, This Is Now Live, which launched in early May with a webinar on the circular economy and how it relates to fashion, held in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, another of its clients. Participants receive a follow-up newsletter with takeaways from the event.
“During the pandemic, one thing that we realized is that there’s a lot of webinars out there and a lot of opportunities to share information, but that a lot of people were not actually letting the viewers come away with facts and figures,” said Vanessa von Bismarck, founder and partner at BPCM.
“We felt that there was room to create a platform that is really based on good information. It’s not just about sustainability, it can be many things, but it’s really just bringing together panels of people who have authority in their field,” she added.
While the agency has been developing its sustainability practice, launched 18 months ago, it does not see This Is Now Live as a future revenue stream. “We don’t want sponsors for the platform, we don’t want commercial partnerships. This platform will remain free and will be open to everybody,” said von Bismarck.
“We believe that there is a lot of confusing information out there and that sharing good information is good citizenship, if you like, and we have the capability to do so,” she explained. “Eventually, if brands wanted us to help them conceive these kinds of webinars, we might be open to consult on that as well.”
Robin Meason, founder of Paris-based communications agency Ritual Projects, which represents brands like Y/Project, GmbH, Area and Le Labo, has recently diversified her fields of representation to include promoting wellness and sustainability as well.
Her clients include Honour Thy Lovers, founded by Canadian energy practitioner John James, which she introduced with a weeklong series of videos on the agency’s Instagram billed as “portals to truthful self-discovery,” or guided meditations.
She will also start repping Le25Paris, a recently opened two-level vintage and rental space in Paris. The ground floor is a concept store that mixes vintage clothing and young designers like Nicolas Lecourt Mansion, who won the ANDAM’s Pierre Bergé Prize last year.
On the lower level, Le25Archive offers a selection of women’s and men’s vintage clothing from major collectors worldwide, including signature pieces from the late Eighties and Nineties by brands such as Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang.
“My first incentive is to help promote these philosophies to help people and the planet if I can,” said Meason. “These have been instinctive reactions that I think could also generate new revenue streams.”
Meason has given carte blanche on Instagram Stories to people she works with regularly — such as stylist Delphine Danhier, sound designer Lukas Heerich and hairstylist Ramona Eschbach — to talk about their projects and inspirations during the lockdown. “We’re not trying to represent these people at all,” she said. “We just thought it would be interesting content.”
With many magazines cutting back issues, she plans to ask members of this creative community to style and model the collections of the labels she represents, in lieu of editorial shoots. “I think there will be some campaigns that come out of that, that are social media-focused,” Meason said. “It’s all about something more personal.”
Karla Otto, which operates in 11 offices worldwide and has a roster of clients including Tommy Hilfiger, Moncler, Valentino, Nike, L’Oréal and Bulgari, has also updated its Instagram feed with one-off editorial content designed to entertain and inform during confinement, under the hashtag #bettertogether.
For instance, New York-based food artist Laila Gohar dishes on how to get the city’s best food and wine delivered to your doorstep, while influencers like Caro Daur and Camille Charriere share tips for feeling good at home.
Nicolas Delarue, senior vice president at Karla Otto’s Paris office, said the brand expects to see greater demand for content creation as fashion weeks move to digital platforms and e-commerce becomes an increasingly important revenue driver for fashion brands.
“Our clients are large enough that they don’t need us to handle their e-commerce. Rather, they will call on us to create digital content that will drive e-commerce,” he said. “Digital is already an important part of our activities, but it will become even more central going forward.”
Los Angeles-based communication and brand-building agency Violetta Group launched its webinar series, dubbed Violetta Virtual Sessions, shortly after the U.S. entered lockdown, and has since tackled light topics such as cocktails and makeup, but also weightier issues such as inclusivity and domestic violence.
“During the initial confinement phase, what became immediately clear to us was that the most valuable asset at the core of what we do is our relationships,” explained founder and chief executive officer Alice Braccini. The agency’s clients include Agent Provocateur, Antonio Marras, Audemars Piguet and Matchesfashion.
“What started as a way to entertain and communicate with our peers quickly evolved into a curated program of inspirational talks, product showcases and interactive classes with intimate groups of professionals across industries, including a number of journalists. Nothing is expected from our guests, just to be curious, tune in and hopefully get inspired,” she said.
The latest, held on May 14, partnered Claire Fountain, founder of Trill Yoga, with Pure Beauty, a California-based cannabis brand that labels itself as eco-friendly and sustainable, for a talk about self-love followed by a cannabis happy hour, with participants receiving Pure Beauty products ahead of time to participate.
“It’s the first time for both of us,” said Braccini of working with a cannabis brand. “Pure Beauty has been focusing on its product rollout and d-to-c strategies since its launch and this virtual session has been the first official introduction of its products to a vetted group of editors and tastemakers from fashion, health and wellness and lifestyle industries, primarily women.”
She views the product and the platform as an opportunity to diversify her revenue streams. “We have already started to explore both aspects: how to make VVS a viable new business division while we keep on diversifying our client portfolio,” she said.
But not everyone is switching to new activities. “I am not budging from my core work because I am busy enough keeping the business afloat,” said Lucien Pages, whose agency in Paris represents brands including Jacquemus, JW Anderson, Paco Rabanne and Schiaparelli. “It would be too much of a stretch for me.”
Von Bismarck, however, believes the nature of public relations is bound to evolve to keep pace with an increasingly complex environment.
“Overall, I think our business is still obviously p.r. and communications and all of that, but it’s also really getting quite involved in business development and consulting, even taking equity in some of our clients,” she said. “The perception of p.r. has to be changed, and we have to help them see that we can get involved deeper with their business than just sending out samples.”
For her, the pandemic has merely acted as a catalyst for transformation. “COVID-19 certainly accelerated our focus, but we didn’t really change direction. We just really went further down a path that seems timely and relevant for our new reality,” von Bismarck concluded.