“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.

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