I am a PR newbie. Though the kind of work that I got excited about when I was at VCCP people told me was "sort of PR" - initiatives like blogger outreach programs for o2 way back in 2007, special non-advertising projects for Unilever and social media work for Aleskandr the meerkat. In fact the planning methology that we developed at VCCP which asked these specific questions "Why would I talk about/blog about/tweet about this idea", "how can I participate in this idea" and "what keeps the conversation going" are actually all (I find out now) classic types of PR questions. But the fact remains until January of this year I had never actually worked properly in a PR agency.
I now divide my working week between a central strategy and innovation role at Chime and a Board role at the newly formed Good Relations Group. Its the space where Digital meets Advertising meets PR which facinaties me most and where I think that the future of our industry lies. There are so many cross-pollination lessons that each of these disciplines can learn from each other but I thought that I would start with what the PR world can learn from the advertising world.
I think that it is a result of structural issues in the PR world namely that everyone does everything instead of traditionally either allowing for specialisms or T-shaped people. So on the whole most agencies don't have planners, suits or creatives. One person does all of it they just move up the ladder of seniority.
But its the different approach to creativity that has really struc me and to be honest PR agencies seem to be struggling a bit compared to their advertising counterparts.
In my experience there are three elements that PR agencies need to focus on if they want to improve their creativity. I don’t think that the solution to our creativity crisis lies in simply hiring a creative director (although I actually do think that PR agencies need them). Rather, it lies in a culture shift towards Curiosity, Constraints and Conflict.
Creativity starts with a curious mindset. Without curiosity there can be no creativity. The most curious people are the most interesting, constantly collecting experiences and ideas from everywhere. They make unexpected connections because they are open, alert and plugged in. It’s the agency’s job to create a curious culture. The American documentary photographer Walker Evans said about curiosity: “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” That sentiment should permeate everywhere.
The second thing to think about is constraints. Marissa Meyer, then head of user experience at Google, gave a talk at Stanford in which she said that creativity loves constraints. She was referring to technological constraints such as pixel size, file sizes and download speeds but Meyer makes a valid point about creativity generally. PR creativity suffers because it is unfocused. I was amazed to find out that, often, creative briefs are not written. How can you possibly know what problem you’re trying to solve without a proper, considered brief, complete with constraints?
What would have happened if Michelangelo had been told to paint whatever he wanted in the Sistene Chapel? Or if he had been told to paint the ceiling in order to cover up the cracks and damp or to paint the ceiling using red, green and blue? Those briefs don’t lead to much creativity. However when he was told to paint the ceiling in a way that inspired the audience to believe in the greater glory of God by bringing to life key bible stories then unprecedented creativity was unleashed. Constraining briefs unlock great creative ideas.
Finally, I think PR agencies need to embrace conflict more. Advertising agencies are filled with conflict. It doesn’t always make for a fun working environment, but it does make for better creative work. The triangular structure of ad agencies (suits, planners, creatives) means that everyone constantly faces internal battles which sharpens up ideas long before they are sold to clients. A bit of fear does wonders for an idea. PR agencies need more arguments and more balls.
One quote in the Creativity in PR study read: “PR people are fearful pleasers and wimps. Instead of fighting, we whine. It’s easier.” I agree. 2013 has to be the year that the PR industry ups its game creatively and takes the fight to the advertising world and beyond.
It’s never been a more exciting time to be a creative obsessive in the PR industry.