Public-relations giant BCW is entering into a new business building e-commerce apps and websites, and it shows how the lines between PR and advertising are blurring

By Sean Czarnecki

The public-relations giant BCW has been quietly building an e-commerce offering, the latest effort by CEO Donna Imperato to diversify the WPP-owned firm's business.

The e-commerce pitch is part of BCW's digital- and integrated-communications practice. The pitch is that BCW can build websites and apps for clients and run performance media campaigns that target consumers with search, social ads, and content marketing, a BCW spokesperson said. 

The company says it already has a dozen clients, which it wouldn't name.

Like other PR agencies, BCW is trying to diversify and grow its business by getting into areas like ad creative and data-driven services. This effort goes back to 2018, when BCW acquired HZDG, a firm specializing in branding, advertising, and digital.

"We knew we needed e-commerce because with the internet, you want to be able to promote the client product or brand and make it easy for the reader to go straight to purchasing that product," Imperato told Business Insider.

It's also part of a broader convergence where the lines between media and advertising services are blurring as companies push into each other's businesses in search of new revenue lines. Examples include the top PR firm Edelman making a big push into advertising, consulting firms like Accenture buying agencies, and agencies fighting back with their own offerings.

E-commerce is new territory for BCW, which makes most of its revenue from corporate communications and public affairs. E-commerce is also booming as people order online while stuck at home during the pandemic, leaving brands scrambling to maximize their online presence.

BCW is also getting into consulting with a new arm it started in September. Two years in development, the Polycultural Consulting Unit's pitch is that it can help companies understand, communicate with, and advertise to consumers in culturally relevant ways and promote inclusion and diversity.

"We're going to need to staff up because the team isn't large enough to meet all the requests right now," Imperato said.

BCW is the third-largest PR agency in revenue, with $740 million in revenue, according to ProvokeMedia. It was formed in 2018 through a merger between the PR giant Burson-Marsteller, which was known for corporate, crisis, and public-affairs services, and Cohn & Wolfe, known for digital, creative, and integrated communications.

After taking a dip earlier in the pandemic, Imperato said BCW's business pipeline started turning around in August. Throughout the pandemic, public affairs, crisis, corporate communications, and healthcare, and the US market as a whole, performed strongly, the CEO added. 

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