Why don’t you come over?

Twenty years ago I had lunch with an acquaintance who was then one of the most senior ad land figures in the UK. I had been in PR for about ten years and had enjoyed the opportunity to work alongside ad creatives, film makers and planners. My first love had been film, loved visual art, design and photography. I asked his advice on switching from PR to advertising. He told me to stay put – “In ten years ad guys will be wanting to switch to PR” he said.

I recalled that conversation as I sat waiting to present the Golds and Grand Prix at Eurobest in Lisbon on Friday night. Having chaired the jury, I knew that PR agency entries had been relatively few, and only one (Swedish)  had made it Gold award status. Despite our disappointment at that fact, my team of fellow PR agency heads and creative leads enjoyed our two days of studying the work and debating the relative merits. The Grand Prix winner was a great PR campaign, even if a PR agency had been nowhere near it.

I think it is less that the ad guys are switching to PR – though some are, including on my team -  more that they are evolving to add it to their already formidable arsenal of disciplines. Another platform for their creative ideas. And in some cases, because we vacate the space – creatively, not bothering to enter or turn up at Eurobest for example – they are colonising PR.

Here are a few reflections.

1. The ad guys look like they love what they do

When ad folk, particularly the creatives, take the stage to collect an award, its like The Rolling Stones at the end of a gig. They bounce. They dance. They hug. They punch the air. There is joy! Celebration! They love what they do. They create beautiful pictures, film, stories, art. You have to admire that.

Are we as passionate about our creative work?  We need to be.

2. Our ” art” isn’t the same

Though if we are serious about content creation and engaging storytelling  it needs to start being.

We are more about ideas that others bring to life, or from an ad industry perspective (see my Dumb Ways To Die story in previous posts) we are the people who implement ad agency creative ideas. And they are starting to think, given the power of some of those ideas to burst and pop across multiple channels, that they can do that themselves. If that is what our clients chose, it  is our fault.

Digital and social media has to a certain extent levelled the playing field for us and advertising. Particularly goven our heritage of dialogue. But where are the creative technologists, the creative film making talent, the pictorial poets in our industry to help bring our ideas to life. They are elsewhere. We can and must bring in more true creatives, creatives who push the boundaries and challenge the – our – status quo, push our clients into more creative bravery as the ad agencies are already doing. But they need people with the skills to bring their creative ideas to life.

And don’t assume that ad folk are not learning the dialogue game. In some cases they are overtaking us.

3. There has never been a better time to be in PR/There has never been a more challenging time to be in PR (delete as appropriate).

When the press and broadcast media dominated our lives (only really in politics does it still,  and with demographic change and declining  trust in newspapers as well as politicians, even that is changing) we had the public relations world pretty much to ourselves. We were the publicists, the spin doctors, the reputation managers. We were powerful.

But media consumption patterns have changed dramatically in just a decade, and will accelerate as Gen Z comes of age. In the Engagement Era, the engagers will thrive.

Newspaper sales are shrinking. The number of journalists working in news media is shrinking. On the other hand the number of channels to reach and engage with influencers, consumers and citizens is exploding. The key now is engagement, not broadcasting, so it requires a different approach, and different skills and recruitment protocols, but not a crisis of self confidence in our industry.

4. You have to be in it to win it.

I have been passionate about Cannes since my first experience as a juror and Cannes Lions winner. But it goes way beyond the awards. Cannes, and Eurobest, are unique opportunities to bring together creatives from across the marcomms mix, to see brilliant work, to listen to and exchange ideas and experiences. To be inspired and challenged.

We have some great PR industry thought leadership events, in the UK and other local markets, and internationally via Paul Holmes and now a refreshed ICCO. But PR does not exist in a vacuum. Increasingly we are part of an integrated broader industry and ideas maelstrom.

We need more PR firms and PR ideas people to be at Cannes and Eurobest, as well as taking part in the awards.

5. Our future is where Art meets Science

I have said it many times and saw the same chart I present in talks and lectures in an ad agency presentation. For us the science is Big Data and Creative Technology. Collectively as an industry we lack the firepower of the ad agencies. We are trailing in this particular Space Race. We need to prove to CMOs that we are about more than “free media” and “raising awareness”. They want more science, more insights, more evidence in return for their marketing money.

Eurobest day 1 part 2

Got to the end of 117 videos and now awaiting the shortlist which will be published later. Will be rightly shot if I speak out of turn about any individual entries but here are some broad themes emerging in the PR awards category:

  • Scandinavia, and particularly Sweden, continue to dominate entries, and not just in their traditional creative social media sweet spot
  • big PR markets like the UK, Spain, France continue to be under represented in terms of entries
  • continued lack of brave thinking from PR agencies vs ad agencies, particularly in integrated
  • the “stunt” is back with a vengeance, and that vengeance is called shareable content.

Off for fresh air and coffee.

Eurobest, Lisbon, Tuesday

So the judging phase kicked off in fine style last night here at The European Festival of Creativity, with dinner in the elegant and impressive Lisbon City Hall. This is the third year I think that the festival has been held in the city, one of the warmest in Europe for this time of year ( and I am told one of three European cities built on seven hills, along with Rome and, er, Sheffield), though next year, to the sadness of our very nice hosts, it will be moving on.

Nine juries – and delighted one of my fellow jury presidents is the brilliant Matias Palm-Jensen, European Chief Innovation Officer for our sister ad agency McCann – around 120 jurors who will assemble this morning, and some 1,500 festival participants expected later in the week.

Talk at dinner centred on a couple of things (though I was sat next to the fascinating advertising creative wunderkind PJ Pereira from San Fran, who would start lovely little stories off with “I was recently shooting in the desert with Harvey Keitel ….” ) – creative places to live and work,  was PR the emergent discipline that glued all the other aspects of creative communications together, and, in a digital world how will we continue to get paid adequately for what we do.

Today my jury – a kind of Eurovision Song Contest of PR creatives though sadly lacking an entry from Ireland, which I will have to represent in spirit; where are Jedward when you need the buggers – will sit in a small room and watch around 110 campaign videos back to back to get us into the spirit of the work.


Recognising creativity, but don’t forget great client partnership and service

I am fantastically looking forward to my week at Eurobest, where I am delighted to be chairing the PR jury and working with top creatives and PR practitioners from creative hotspots like Bucharest and Stockholm. Eurobest is another chance to celebrate the best European creative communications and engagement campaigns.

(Proud that Weber Shandwick was once again named most award winning agency in the UK, and “most creative” in the world last year by The Holmes Report.)

I love taking part in awards juries, getting to see inspiring and thought provoking work, emerging trends and at Cannes and Eurobest playing the “guess what sort of agency was behind it” game (judging is “blind” to the agency name or sector until the 11th hour).

Most awards are for campaigns, programmes fixed to a single goal or outcome, and a fixed time period, fuelled by a spurt of creative energy and a ripple or roar of Likes, eyeballs, coverage, shares etc.

But let’s not forget the often unsung heroes of our industry, the client leads and account teams who partner with clients year in, year out, often without the plaudits and greasepaint of glamorous awards events but providing partnership to their clients for the long haul. At Weber Shandwick we are as proud of our track record on enduring client relationships – 7 years on average, twice the industry average – as we are of our award winning profile.

So, let’s celebrate creative, effective, eye catching client campaigns. But let’s also celebrate great client service from our teams, and the step by step, month on month, year by year achievements we create together.

Listen to the storytellers

This week I took a small group  of my senior staff, all talented leaders in their own specialist fields who were either new to my firm, to the PR industry, or moving into new roles internally. Nothing unusual in that, we all do it all the time.

They were all successful in own right, and I and they want to be even more successful together in our business transformation goal.

We were guided  by a very talented and empathetic facilitator and coach, Caroline Montagu, who I have worked with for many years. (She is outstanding, gets marketing, gets people. I cannot recommend her enough.)

Some of the team I had worked with or known for years, others for a few short months. I thought I knew some of them well, as colleagues and friends.

Caroline got us to tell our life stories, with all the ups and downs.

It was electrifying.

Suddenly people who I thought I knew, I realised I only knew in one or two dimensions. Suddenly, they went 3D or even 4D. All through the telling of and listening to engaging, often moving, stories.

Whoever said “the personal has no place at work” was indeed a fuck wit.

We talk a lot about storytelling in our various comms businesses. But how often do we take the time to listen?

PR people especially pride themselves on dialogue, but as one PR training consultant said to me recently – we train our people to talk, but not to listen.

Taking the time to listen, really listen, transforms our view of people, ideas, new thinking. Transforms our understanding of what shapes the people we think we know, their hopes, dreams, fears and desires.

So if you are planning a team building session (and not one of those grim build-a-raft or paint balling days), please please please build in time for people to tell their story, and for people to listen to those stories. Scales will fall from eyes, enlightenment will descend, hearts will move and all your aha! moments will arrive at once like so many London buses.

My mother frets about the speed I live at, the pressures and responsibilities I juggle. Like me she loves the simple pleasure of seeing things grow in the garden. Her favourite phrase for such occasions is “stop and smell the roses”.

Let me paraphrase.

Stop and listen to the stories.

Big night for PR professionals

I was delighted to accept the award for International Consultancy of the Year at the PR Week Awards in London last night. It was a great night for me and my team, but also for the whole industry, and the best organised celebration of our collective great work and profession in the UK thanks to the leadership of new editor Ruth Wyatt and her team.

It was a great night for numerous agencies big, medium and small. It was a great night for my friends at GolinHarris who were named both Best Large Consultancy and Best Consultancy in recognition of their own bold transformation into a “new PR” agency.

It was a great night for some small and new consultancies, some of which many of us had not heard of before; for Manifest London, M&C Saatchi, Hope & Glory, Dynamo and many others.

It was a great night for senior women PRs in the boardroom with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Lucy Neville-Rolfe, and for young talent like Beth Murray from Lansons, named Young PR Professional of the Year. A great night for in-house teams at The Jockey Club, O2 Telefonica UK, The Royal Mail, Virgin Trains, SSE, Cancer Research UK etc.

It was a great night for recognising great work, great talent, great creativity and innovation which is the hallmark of the best work and thinking coming out of our thriving industry at this pivotal point. As PR professionals, whether a winner last night or not, we can be proud of the transformational work we are doing, the talent we are attracting, even if our industry doesn’t always attract the best headlines.

Usually the morning after a PR Week Awards we have a collective hangover. Today we can have a bit of a collective glow as well. This is a great business to be in, especially now given the opportunity PR has to extend its storytelling creative smarts further across the marketing and communications mix.

“Creativity” – the most abused word in PR?

“Creativity” has taken over from “Strategy” as the most used, and often abused, word in PR.

Personally I am so pleased that the Cannes Festival of Creativity is now a fixture in my calendar. A holiday for the brain if not the liver, with sunshine, blue sea and beach parties thrown in.

This year I was not only delighted to collect a Gold Lion (our fourth Lion in the UK) for a public affairs campaign – proving that creativity is about the whole of our industry, not just consumer marketing – but to see my sister ad agency McCann pick up the Grand Prix in the PR category and 27 other awards for the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die public safety campaign.

Along with Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, the DWTD campaign song became the soundtrack of the festival. I toasted the creative behind it at a beach party and life was good.

I don’t agree with his views on our industry though. In an interview he was asked,  could a PR agency have conceived the campaign? His reply was “No, they don’t hire the type of people who think up these [creative] ideas. They hire people that activate, that expand on this type of thinking.”

You can understand why he takes this view. We have tended to pitch ourselves as the tactical execution people. Only recently have agencies embraced the ideas-centric opportunity. But are we yet to truly put creativity at the centre of all we do?

[The opposite is true of some sectors of PR. Often the smaller the budget, the greater the creative results. Look at where the Cannes Lions winners are coming from. Hardly exclusively New York or London. I have worked in politics and non-profits where creativity was pretty much the only currency we had to spend on a campaign. One of my personal visionaries here was the late lamented Philip Gould, a key part of our New Labour brand transformation team.]

Truth is that the Cold War between PR and advertising is hotting up. We are moving from multi- channel to channel neutral, the lines between communications disciplines are blurring, brands are becoming their own content publishers and bypassing traditional media (which sells advertising space to survive) altogether. The battle for the marketing £££ will get more and more intense.

Some PR agency heads spent much of Cannes grumbling into their chilled rosé about “another bloody ad agency” winning the top PR Lion. Others like me look and learn.

Advertising  has done three things better than PR up until now – putting creativity at the centre, analytics and insights, and understanding the business of their client as opposed to just their communications needs.

There have been several PR agency responses to the collective creative insecurity our industry suffers from.

There’s what I call the Pink Plaster Cow Syndrome, where you give your agency a wacky name,  and stick a weird and wonderful artwork in reception to show how truly creative you are.

[There are some exceptions. One agency head I admire is Angie Moxham at 3 Monkeys. I was on the PR Week jury which made them new agency of the year. They embrace wacky name with real creativity. Others, not so much.]

Then there are those who rethink the model, move creative from the sidelines to the centre, link it to insights and analytics, and put a senior empowered creative at the top of the firm to drive it with real authority.

[I am about 20% guilty of the first one,  with the ubiquitous three day stubble chin, shaved head and purple trainers, but hopefully 80% the second one.]

We also have to reinvent the ideation (Jeez I hate that word) process away from brainstorms with a flip chart in a space that could be hospital waiting room, and embrace more than the usual suspects in the process. 60% of the average PR firm’s staff will be Millennials,  many of those will be digital natives, so lets get them more involved. Creativity doesn’t start and stop in London – my Chief Creative Officer is from Bucharest.

We also have to be clear what we mean by creativity. What I call “creativity with impact”.  A recent  blog post on The Holmes Report made the point very well: creativity is no longer about just thinking creatively – it’s about actual creation. “Making stuff.”

That means recruiting creative technologists who can make the great ideas come alive, film makers to look at the next wave of engaging storytelling, etc.

This requires a braver and broader approach to recruitment and the skills base we need to move to the next level of creativity with impact.

In short, we have to stop moaning about ad agencies, stop affecting creativity, and start remodelling our businesses to empower creatives and drive the next wave of great, compelling, transformational ideas.

The future is ours. But only if we grasp it. Creatively.

We need Art & Science in harmony in The Engagement Era

Two lines of comment have emerged on the Publicis Omnicom merger. (Three if you count all the comment on Sir MS’ shaken not stirred response.)

Firstly, does size matter? It may increase media buying clout but will it boost creativity?

Second, is this adland’s response to the inexorable rise of the West Coast big data giants?

My favourite media commentary was by Jerry Della Femina in the FT. He rightly argued that the “marketing is now more algorithm than Mad Men” line was wrong.

Efficiently targeted ads that are dull as ditchwater don’t work. Up their own backside creative campaigns that excite The Gutter Bar crowd but leave consumers cold don’t work either.

Creativity & efficiency is key. Art & science in perfect harmony. A great lesson for PR as it feels it’s way out of the shadow of advertising and out of the age of “stunts” and into the engagement, and engaging content, era.

Can PR prove its creative edge? Yes we Cannes!

Returning from Cannes with a bump Friday – hailstones and a two hour jam on the M25 – I thought on the week me and many PR colleagues had just experienced. Leaving aside chatting movies and storytelling with the great Sir Alan Parker, touching cultural history in an audience with Lou Reed, dancing to P Diddy and hanging out drinking on the beach (a lot), it was a great learning week for our industry and a showcase for some fantastic creative and impactful PR campaigns.

Yes, once again an ad agency won the top PR campaign prize – McCann Melbourne and their terrific “Dumb Ways to Die” public safety campaign (listen to the song and I defy you not to have it worm it’s way into your brain) – but so what? Five years in and the PR agency world is still learning, not just from great campaign ideas but how to package our own to compete for a Lions.

On Monday night I was proud to take the stage to accept our second Gold Lion on behalf of my London PA team, and hear my London Consumer team win a Bronze. Proud that WS is one of the most Cannes Lions winning London PR agencies.

Does it matter? Yes it does.

Yet the PR world remains divided between those who want to moan about, and those who want to celebrate, Cannes. I am in the latter camp, have been from the get go, and not just because of our multiple award wins.

Not only does Cannes  bring together ten thousand or more creative, smart, strategic and often brilliant people in an almost unique whirlpool of ideas, insights and often dodgy shorts and flip flops. It is a great challenge and opportunity to show our relevance and SWAT in the Engagement Era.

We have to increasingly concentrate on original ideas and creating engaging content, as well as having the smarts to know how to get that content to the right people. Competing with other disciplines who have been at the Cannes party for up to sixty years helps us focus as well as learn.

PR has been at Cannes for just five of those sixty years, and some would argue that collectively we still have not made the breakthrough in terms of Lions winning work. But five years is the equivalent of starting primary school compared to the ad world qualifying for a free bus pass. Give it time and enjoy the learning experience.

Creativity as well as dialogue and engagement are what we practice. The ad agencies who we regard jealously are increasing looking in our direction and at our territory. We are the original storytellers, but we don’t always tell our own story well, either in terms of Lions winning two minute compelling and emotionally engaging videos, or managing our reputation.

The Cannes Lions experience can help us shape our approach to strategic planning and insights, push us to bolder campaigns and ideas that capture imaginations and deliver real impact.

For that alone let’s celebrate being increasingly central to Cannes as well as being the new kids on La Croisette.

Info overload

This morning I listened to the Today programme, read two national newspapers, two trade magazines, about 20 overnight emails, three blogs, a business proposal, some social media research, dozens of tweets and a few pages of a chapter on building duck ponds from my duck book. All before I got to the office.

We truly live in an Information Age and the daily risk of drowning in the stuff, losing focus and not being able to pick the wheat of ideas and insights from the chaff.

I was asked by one of my team,  in an internal company online q&a, what the essential traits of a PR professional are.

I offered these three;

Listening – the ability to listen as well as talk and offer an informed point of view

Creativity – innovative thinking with real business or other impact

Curiosity – an interest in the world around us, an enquiring and analytical mind.

In an information overload age, the curiosity bit is more essential than ever but so is the analytics.

I thought back to yesterday. I probably consumed the same, including the epic horrors of news from court cases, Oxford, Syria and beyond.

But the three most enjoyable experiences at work yesterday were in person, face to face. Lunch with a digital rising star with a music PR background, meeting one of our most awarded and fearless investigative journalists, meeting a pioneer of newspapers moving into the digital space who had reinvented himself as a niche content creator.

Amid all the digital and other media and information we consume, in our admirable curiosity, it is important we create space for talking and listening the people. The art of conversation.