Creativity and contradictions on La Croisette

If you want to read insightful comment on creativity and innovation at Cannes 2016, please read the posts on the Weber Shandwick EMEA blog from my creative colleagues.

If you want to read the random thoughts of a sleep deprived (thanks Daily Mail yacht, ya bastards) old PR lag, read on.

So, my 7th Cannes Festival of Creativity and it was the biggest, baddest, boldest yet. With Health Lions at one end, and the new Entertainment Lions at the other, the festival is creeping into being a mind exploding week and a half of new ideas, creativity, innovation, VR, AR, big data pyrotechnics and great work from every corner of the world and every sector. And rosé. Lots of bloody rosé.

(I arrived and headed as always for the screens in the Work Zone. I had a seven year itch. The PR category was dominated by ad agencies again. Didn’t I see that campaign by another brand and agency just a couple of years ago?  It didn’t last long.)Cannes Lions tweet 2

There was also a welcome increase in the number of clients attending. 3000 is a number I heard, around a quarter of the total attendees. Some old advertising hands apparently resisted this. Like the festival organisers, I welcome it. Creativity and innovation is a partnership with our clients, not something we do to reluctant clients.

Some highlights – and the odd low light – for me:

The Future of Brands – Unilever CMO Keith Weed’s annual lecture is always a highlight, peppered with engaging work, original research and insights into one of the greatest marketing organisations in the world. Watch it online. Not for the first time last week the Persil/Omo “Free the kids” film brought a tear to my jaded eye. His “I to the power of n” proposition is brilliant.

Keith Weed

No blockbuster – there was no apparent (it’s still going on as I write) “Like a Girl” or “Dumb ways to die” category board sweeper but that’s ok. On issues like gender equality, a thousand flowers blooming rather than just one great big one shows how seriously the industry is taking it.

(That said…..I was not the only one in the audience who noted yet again the irony of an industry talking about gender equality as all or majority male advertising creative team after creative team took to the stage. Only one in ten advertising creatives are women. Only one in ten creatives listed on Lions winning advertising work are women. Keith Weed’s own analysis of thousands of ads worldwide shows that 50% of ads stereotype women. Only 3% portrayed women in powerful, leadership roles. 80% of women consumers don’t identify with these ads. Guys – and you usually are guys – this has to change. The most talked about influential on social media at Cannes this year was the brilliant feminist marketing icon Cindy “I blow shit up” Gallop, yet huge swathes of the industry still continue to act like Mad Men in beards and bad denim.)

Creativity counts – every morning at ten am the Cannes Lions folks did a presentation on why creativity was now a more valued business asset than ever. As one client said “you sell more product at higher prices if you are creative”. For a decade now the Cannes Marketeer of the Year company has gone on to see their share price rocket ahead of their peers as a result of their cumulative creative work.

Buzz off – The three buzz words last year were Products, Disruption and Culture. It will be fascinating to see what they are this year but technology innovation and cultural change will be the undercurrents.

Winning is infectious – ten years ago the entire worldwide retail industry combined won one Bronze Lion between them, despite being one of the most consumer facing industries in the world. Last year the sector won 75 Lions for over twenty retail brands from fourteen countries, including a Grand Prix. This year a retail campaign won the PR Grand Prix and John Lewis’ love-struck penguin won big.

Don’t break the Internet – you read so many award entries that claim their campaign “broke the Internet” you wonder how the bloody thing works any more. (I know of only two genuine Internet breakers – Emma Watson’s brilliant UN Women speech and my train company’s crappy wifi. Possibly Kim K’s arse as well I am told.) The PR Jury rightly declared that this sort of hyperbole actually got entries marked down in favour of those that demonstrated measurable business or people impact.

The creative divide – as a perma-worrier about the future for young people including my own kids, a chilling phrase rang in my ears from from one creative commentator; “For so much of life creativity is suppressed. If you are not creative you don’t have a future.” When I was a working class kid growing up in Salford, many of my friends were written off at 11 by the education system or left school at sixteen to go into factory and manual jobs that no longer exist. When you look at our education system today, when you look at the ghettoising of what we used to call working class people (brilliantly documented by Guardian columnist Owen Jones in his book “Chavs”), when we look at the lack of social and racial diversity in the PR industry and other professions, has so much really changed? If every one of us gave at least one non/privileged kid an opportunity to unleash their creativity – through internships, through music and arts projects, by supporting projects from The Media Trust to the Marc Bolan Music Project at his old London school ( these are some of mine), the world would truly be a better place. We are already a world divided by money, power, religion, ideology, war, hate, fear. Let’s not add creativity to the list.

Cannes, Cannes – there are two Cannes. There are the industry moguls on their yachts and the hard working, curious and ideas hungry young (and not so young) creatives. There are the great creative campaigns on gender, sustainability, education, sexual violence, racism and the Millennial Goals , and there are the millions spent by media brands on charter yachts, fine wine, celebrity guests and lavish dinners. There are the gender equality campaigns and campaigners, and there are the girls with long legs and short shorts handing out leaflets at the Palais entrance. As “the thermostat of the world” as Bono called the marketing industry in a past Cannes Lions keynote, Cannes is a world of contradictions. As a New Labour supporter and warrior in the past, I know about trying to reconcile contradictions and not always pulling it off. Hey, you lay out a lavish picnic and the wasps and ants will turn up as well as the hungry children. But the festival itself is a unique showcase of the greatest creative work and minds, the game changing technologies, the criss-cross of culture and conversation.

My advice – forget the expensive A list celebrities, spend some money on sending your brightest young creatives and help them immerse themselves and their colleagues in the work and inspiration that is The Cannes Lions & Festival of Creativity,  Davos in shorts and T shirts.


Bowie and Creativity

I have blogged before on this so will try not to repeat myself.

I had the pleasure of hosting Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow in our London offices yesterday, via our support for The Media Trust. The previous night he had written an eloquent and much read and shared blog on “The incredible creative life force that was David Bowie”.

JS Bowie Book (4)

When I heard the news of Bowie’s untimely death early Monday, I was genuinely grief stricken. I felt a bright light in my creative life had gone out. Bowie had been a creative inspiration to me since at 15, sat in the family living room in a grey industrial Northern town, I saw him perform Starman in that epic, life changing four minutes on TOTP. He brought colour, creativity, rebellion into an otherwise largely colourless Britain.

This morning I listened to Hunky Dory, the album on which he first found his creative and lyrical voice (and some great, great songwriting) in the car on the way to the station and cried all the way.

I firmly believe that Bowie should be “canonised” as Patron Saint of creatives.

Just a few of many reasons and how we can learn from his “incredible creative life force”.

Firstly, he soaked up culture like a sponge. From music to dance and theatre, from art to fashion, from film to literature, from mythology to branding.

Secondly, and obviously, he kept innovating and moving forward. He didn’t rest on his laurels. Look at how he ripped up his fabulous creation in Ziggy Stardust at the height of his success and moved on, leaving us gasping in his wake.

Thirdly, he learned from failure and came back even stronger and with greater creativity. After his creative low period in the 1980s he experimented, he failed, but he kept at it and won through.

Fourthly, he inspired. Whether my generation in the grey early seventies, a time of power cuts and three day weeks and political and social strife in bleak urban landscapes, or those just discovering him now through BlackStar and his untimely death.

He was creative to the end. He refused to compromise. He continues to inspire and for me, always will.



How the “outsiders” upped British creativity in marketing as well as music, literature and film in the 1960′s and ’70s

I am indebted to the brilliant contemporary British historian and storyteller Dominic Sandbrook and his excellent new history of British creative industries, “The Great British Dream Factory” (Allen Lane) for this post on creativity through diversity.


I, we, talk a lot about diversity in our PR industry. A lot of our focus, rightly, is on greater gender equality. Indeed my firm has just published new research which looks at gender as a new driver of corporate reputation.

In advertising The 3% Conference  – see below – has highlighted that until recently only that tiny percentage of advertising creative directors were women, and now thanks to their campaigning that’s up to 11% and rising. I am also focused on racial and social diversity, the subject of previous blog posts and action by the PRCA, The Taylor Bennett Foundation and others.

Sandbrook highlights a previous case study in the British advertising industry in the 1960s. He notes that at the time agencies were “introverted, conservative, stuffy places dominated by the old officer class”.  Creatively ambitious recruits headed for New York and joined the Mad Men.


When a young John Hegarty joined his first agency in 1965, he found “the staff consisted of public school educated account men who were trained only to say yes”.  He thought they were good for pouring the perfect G&T and little else.

Compared to their American counterparts, British TV ads were clunky, pedestrian, badly shot, badly acted and often hectoring and lecturing in tone. At the end of the 50′s British ads made up around 20% of TV and cinema entries at Cannes, but won few if any awards.

Within a decade or two, all this had changed. A golden age of British advertising came about, from the bike pushing Hovis boy to the hysterical Smash Martians, from Hamlet cigars soundtracked by Bach to the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, and most admired of all Hugh Hudson’s surreal “Swimming Pool”.


From 1974 to 1978, British ads went from winning bugger all at Cannes to dominating the festival, winning half the Golds as well as the top Grand Prix awards.

What changed? Sandbrook sees a crucial element being the rise of the ambitious, creative, post-war generation educated not at Sandhurst and Eton but grammar schools and art colleges (an interesting parallel with the rise of British pop that took America by storm in the 60s, The Beatles, the Stones et al, through to Roxy Music and Mick Jones, Viv Albertine etc in 70′s punk). “As outsiders they were naturally hungry for fame and fortune” notes Sandbrook, “but their ambitions were artistic as well as financial.”

Hegarty was the son of an Irish labourer who attended Hornsey College of Art. Alan Parker, who after advertising went on to direct “Fame”, “Bugsy Malone” and “Mississippi Burning”, was a painter and decorator’s son from North London. Another adman turned movie maker, David Puttnam, was also a grammar school boy outsider.  The Saatchi brothers were the sons of Iraqi Jewish immigrants. Ridley “Bladerunner” Scott went to Stockton on Tees Grammar and Hartlepool College of Art.

They were young, working or lower middle class, creative outsiders. They were the John Lennon’s of commercial visual art. Puttnam has talked about he and his fellow outsiders dreaming of ripping up “the world of privilege and position and place and deference”.

Fast forward to this decade.

The 3% Conference was founded to act on the depressing stat that only 3% of US advertising creative directors were women. “Diversity is the best thing that could ever happen to creativity” declared founder Kat Gordon last year,  talking of advertising being “broken due to a failure of imagination”. There is a growing body of evidence that diversity boosts creativity.

In PR we need to break the self-perpetuating cycle of largely white middle class university graduates who hire yet more white middle class university graduates. As Kat Gordon says; “What can we get from a room full of people in the same situation, validating instead of challenging each other?”

For the golden age of PR, itself rising at Cannes, we need more outsiders.

Links With History

This week I attended the funeral of my neighbour Dick at our West Sussex ancient village church. Dick had reached 95 – a good innings as they say – and until six weeks ago had been a regular sight to us heading off in his car for his morning paper and taking a walk down the lane. It was as much celebration as sadness.

When we got to the church we were handed the order of service. On the front was a picture of our familiar friend, smiling. On the back was a sepia picture of him in his army uniform. It was almost a shock to connect someone we knew to real, world changing history.

Dick had been born in 1920, two years after the end of WW1 and into a Britain struggling to recover from the decimation of a generation. WW2 broke out when he was 19. One of his first jobs was to be stationed in Richmond Park to fend off enemy parachutists who fortunately never materialised. Then he was sent to fight in France and returned with a back full of shrapnel.

We do still have links with WW2 in my family, as do many of us. My mother was six when war broke out, and was evacuated to the Lake District. My grandmother couldn’t bear the separation and after a few months brought her back to Salford. My grandfather built an Anderson Shelter in the back garden. When a German incendiary bomb slid off the roof of a factory opposite and blew their home to shreds, my grandfather’s skills as a builder had saved them.

My eight year old is doing a project on WW2 at school. My mum wrote him a long note on what it was like to be a child in the war, being torn away from family to go live with strangers far away, the air raids while at school, and emerging from the shelter to find possessions ripped and burned. It’s a piece of family history.

To have known someone who had actually fought in the war, these days is rare. I feel our community has lost another important link with history. Later this week I found my eight year old in tears. He said he was sad about Dick and sad that he never got to talk to him about being a soldier in the war he was studying.

To be in PR or not to be in PR, that is the question

ICCO ‘Tis the season of international public relations conferences, with IPRA Congress in Jo’burg two weeks ago, ICCO in Milan last week, and The Holmes Report Global event in Miami later this month.

Like IPRA, ICCO was excellent. Under the leadership of my Ketchum oppo David Gallagher and PRCA head Francis Ingham, ICCO is now really relevant to the challenges and opportunities facing the global public relations consultancy industry.

Big themes last week were – again – creativity, measurement & analytics, talent, the battle with advertising and for the ears of CMOs, and the relevance of what we do (dialogue, engagement) to the challenges facing the world.

One recurrent question – again not new – was: is “public relations” the right term for what we do in an integrated, earned/paid/owned/shared digital world? Is “communications” a better term? Does “PR” attract talent or potentially scare it off.

All good questions.

Here’s my take.

I have now been in this business – PR – for 33 years, probably longer than the average lifespan of my colleagues at Weber Shandwick. So I am fairly proud of the term “PR”. That said, part of my career was as a political spin doctor, one of the branches of PR which has brought the profession into some disrepute (not the only one. Look at the celeb publicity industry. Look at the behaviour of brands flouting convention and trust on sustainability etc.)

I am very wedded to the definition of PR in the ‘idiot’s guide’ that my first boss gave me after I failed as a music writer: “public relations is the dialogue between an organisation and its publics”. Dialogue! In a world of rising levels of fear, suspicion, cynicism, scepticism, cultural barriers – isn’t that more relevant than ever??

But – until the social media revolution were we really in the dialogue business? We were largely in the press release business, not that different from the advertising business (except their clients paid for space and they had nicer offices and company cars). Talking at, in broadcast mode, not dialogue.

Then the Internet, and it’s child prodigy social media, arrived. Everything changed.

Now we are still in the earned media business. But we are also in the paid, shared, owned media business. Some of those involve dialogue and engagement. Most actually. Some don’t. But all require engagement. So we are in the (integrated) communications business.

OK, I am losing myself now!

You get my drift.

Kinda angels on the head of a pin stuff.

But is it? PRPR has a reputation problem. Some of this is our fault, we haven’t focussed enough in recent history on things like measurement and ROI (impact on our clients’ or employer’s business as opposed to image and media profile), innovation, creativity. Caricatures like the PRs in Sex & the City, The Thick of It, VEEP, Ab Fab etc were partly based on the way some of our practitioners liked to prance and preen themselves in front of the media and opinion leaders, who then took sweet revenge. That problematic reputation still hampers our attempts to recruit talent from diverse industries and communities.

So maybe “communications” is a better way to go.

But if we stick to our principles, our founding tenets as an industry – see the “dialogue” definition above – then we should be proud to be part of the industry.

After all, PR is both growing as well as growing in influence. Almost 60% of senior in house CCOs now report to the CEO or chairman or board, which is up 10% on less than a decade ago. 35% of global CCOs now have responsibility for brand communications as well as corporate comms – the rise of the CCMO.

So, are we in PR or communications? Does it matter?

Imagine the conversation at a dinner party, or with your mum.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m in PR.”

“In what?”

“Actually I’m in the communications business.”

“You sell phones?”

Go on, you decide.



I must have attended around twenty Labour Party conferences over the years, first as an activist, then as a party staffer and spin doctor, and then as a lobbyist. Not an evolution that will play well with the average member clapping delightedly at Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday and celebrating “getting our party back”.

(Back from who? The Blairite control freaks? The voters? Worth bearing in mind that Labour members may have elected Corbyn, but voters elected Labour MPs, most of whom regard Corbyn and their potential political oblivion with horror.)

While he was speaking back home in the UK, I was giving a speech on public relations, truth telling and reputation at the excellent IPRA Congress in Jo’burg. Big themes of the event and the many great presentations were the death of spin, and the need for authenticity, dialogue and real engagement by business and business leaders.

One senior in house Corporate Communications Officer I interviewed for my talk had commented on the irony of PR people being dubbed spin doctors by journalists when it was often us trying to seek out and tell the truth, a truth often then “spun” by reporters to reflect their or their proprietors world view. I am sure Corbyn’s team will be feeling the same way as they sift through today’s headlines.

A similar theme was playing out back home it seems. Commenting on Corbyn’s debut, The Guardian had this to say:

“With his overwhelming support from party members, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to do things differently and in his own way. Today he did both. His speech trashed almost the entire playbook of modern media-savvy political orthodoxy, with no conventional clap lines, few soundbites, and in all likelihood not a single focus-group-tested theme.”

Britain's leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the party's annual conference in Brighton

Mea culpa. There is some truth to the assertion that Corbyn’s election by the majority of Labour members and three quid texters was a big “fuck you” to the years of careful message management, a formidable media machine and even “control freakery” that has its roots back in the 80′s when I went to work for Peter Mandelson on Labour’s press team, a time of horror at Labour’s near annihilation in 1983 and the start of the long road back to electability. Yes we did focus groups, yes we used modern marketing techniques, yes we put voter friendly faces on TV and kept vote frighteners on a leash. Guilty as changed. And yes, maybe it all went a bit too far.

So is there a similarity between the way Corbyn is trying to do things differently, be the antithesis of spin, and what we were talking about far away in sunny South Africa?

On the surface yes. People want authenticity, from brands and CEOs and politicians. They want to be talked by humans, not pre programmed marketing machines churning out key messages and soundbites. Human to human communications,

People are more savvy, sceptical. People are more connected and resistant to being talked at and down to, including by the media who they often distrust as much as they distrust business, governments and institutions.

So is Corbyn just trying to do what enlightened CEOs and brands are trying to do? Be authentic? Connect?

To a point Lord Copper.

The best CEOs engage internally and externally. (At Weber Shandwick we have researched these trends and our “CEO Reputation Premium” report is available on our various websites.) Corbyn is engaging internally with those who elected him. But the Labour conference, and God knows I have experienced my share of them, is just a physical incarnation of the Twittersphere echo chamber. It’s not the real world. That is outside the conference hall. Voters. The “customers” of politics.


Customers want authenticity and engagement, but they also want products and services that work and make their busy complex lives better. Time will tell if a Corbyn led Labour Party will deliver those as opposed to another new style of politics and making elements of the party feel good about themselves again for a while.

Why are we so behind the curve on diversity in PR?

In my previous posts reflecting on my 20 years in a PR agency, I have written about the challenges, opportunities and changes I have seen over two decades agency-side. In my final one I return to an issue I feel strongly about, which in recent years the PRCA and other agency and in-house leaders have rightly become active on, but where change is very slow. I am talking about diversity.

Although there is research that shows, in terms of leadership roles and closing gender pay gaps in the UK, we still have way to go on gender equality, I am proud to be at an agency in which the majority of leaders in the UK are women, and that has been named by no less that The Holmes Report as the most gender equal of all the global agencies. (Proud also that we are a #HeForShe office in London.)

Although in the past our industry has, to its cost, lost a lot of female talent and experience post having children, more enlightened attitudes to flexible working, and the digital communications revolution, have largely seen an end to such rhinoceros-hide attitudes amongst agency and in-house heads.

Over my 20 years I have not heard any of my lesbian or gay colleagues express any experience of career limiting prejudice in agencies. Some of my top and most successful colleagues, and friends in PR elsewhere, are gay.

Our failure is racial and social diversity. We are not alone in that. But we are the industry that claims to be the dialogue facilitators between organisations and their publics.

As I have done previously, I turned to PR Week as a reflection of our business. I counted all the photos in the recent edition. Out of 63 pictures of PR leaders, commentators and agency people, 61 were white. Worryingly, this edition included the industry’s top 30 under 30 rising stars.

In a subsequent edition, the situation was similar, and one of the few non whites pictured was actually President Obama.

As an industry that claims to understand Britain, we need to look and be a little more like modern Britain. It’s not good enough to merely claim to be an equal opportunities employer, and that anyone is free to apply for our traineeships. We have to work harder on outreach schemes to schools – given the potential talent from less advantaged backgrounds who are now put off university by the prospect of eye watering debt – as well as the less socially elite universities. We have to break down cultural barriers and misconceptions that stop young talent from considering our industry in the first place.

I am not the only agency leader I know who says he wouldn’t get on his own apprentice scheme these days, being a working class half Irish Salfordian with a second class arts degree from a lesser (in the league tables) university.

There are schemes out there – the PRCA and others can advise – and models like the excellent work The Media Trust does with media organisations. We just need to commit, show some leadership in our organisations, and try a bit harder to make real and not cosmetic change.

I am the first to admit that I have only dented the surface in my own agency. But I intend to keep trying.

Cannes, my fifth year, some thoughts

Personal highlights:

Celebrating two more Lions with Weber Shandwick and Prime colleagues against the backdrop of a beautiful Cannes sunset atop the Radisson Blu.



Unilever CMO Keith Weed’s keynote on Marketing for People. Check it out. Even included a spoof of one of his own campaigns.

Marketing for people


Prof Brian Cox onstage. Little to do with marketing really. Just like him. Northerner and former band member – “Things can (Cannes?) only get better” – who puts sexy into science. What’s not to like.


Hanging with Sasha Wilkins aka Liberty London Girl and seeing all that prolific tweet action happening live.



Watching Entourage leading man Adrian Grenier, UN Women’s inspirational Elizabeth Nyamayaro and Keith Weed join my agency’s president Gail Heimann to talk #HeForShe . Adrian was kind enough to send a photo get well wish to my poorly daughter,


Catching up with my old mate David Brain, APAC CEO of Edelman, after too long.

Viewing the work and particularly that tackling the tough issues and challenges, from FGM to child abuse, from climate change to hunger and poverty, from Nazis to gender stereotyping.



Low lights:

Getting up at four thirty to flee Cannes to beat the threatened blockade of the airport by striking taxi drivers and spending five hours drinking shit coffee in one of the worst airports I know. Though I did make a friend in the marathon lounge bum numb.


The incongruity of earnest discussions about Millenium Goals and global poverty on luxury yachts and in the midst of Mad Men excess

global goals pano

The crassness the night after the inaugural Glass Lions (celebrating gender equality campaigns),  awarding the PR Grand Prix to Always’ #RunLikeAGirl campaign, and at an event chaired by Save the Children’s Gender Equality Ambassador to celebrate the Millennium Goals (which include one on gender equality and tackling gender stereotypes) of some PR twit deciding to dress girls in skimpy frilly dresses as pastiche cinema usherettes to show us to our seats.



PR still not making the cut through in the Lions – more below.

So, five years since my first trip to the Cannes Festival. Then as a juror where I met my colleague and Prime creative supremo Tom Beckman and one of my favourite creatives and former colleague Gabriella Lungu. My London office won its second Lions, though most entries and winners were from advertising agencies.

Much breast beating and clothes ripping ensued in the PR world – why were we so uncreative, why were those bastards in advertising invading our space etc. I took the opposite view and wrote in my blog at the time that PR agencies should see Cannes as an opportunity to look at and learn from what advertising did so well. We were the newcomers stealing the drinks at advertising’s house party. They had been doing Cannes for sixty years.

Five years on I am a bit more sanguine. One juror trumpeted Cannes as a success for PR this year, because the majority of entries in the PR category were from PR firms. Yes but, I countered, the vast majority of Gold Lions winners were still ad agencies, or ad agency ideas further amplified by PR. Ah, that’s because they have deep pockets to fund pro bono campaigns for worthy causes that win big. Yes, but, you chose them as winners.

And if success is simply based on the number of agencies shelling out entry fees as opposed to winning recognition for the work, well that’s like the time I worked on an election campaign about which Campaign magazine declared “Labour won the campaign – but lost the election.”

Rather than pass the buck and put some good old fashioned spin on the issue, I think it is time for the PR agency world to accept that while we have upped our game on creativity since Cannes opened its doors to us, and we have broadened our intake to include advertising and digital creatives, we are still too often not in the lead on creative ideation. We often use our considerable skills to generate engagement and buzz and shares and likes around a creative idea – but all too often it is someone else’s idea.

(My lovely friend Gabriela is back in advertising where her edgy thinking is plugged straight into the heart of client engagement.)

The truth is that many of our industry’s creative ideas are just not big enough and break through enough. As Keith Weed said in his keynote, in the engagement era it is not enough to just grab people’s increasing short attention. You have to emotionally engage them with ideas and content they want to share (and, I would add, act on). And the PR Lion winning campaigns that engaged us this year, including the PR agency executive jury who voted them Golds,  were still largely not from PR agencies.


PR: what’s changed and what’s still needs to change, part 3

Welcome to the third instalment of my reflections on twenty years in a PR agency, what’s changed and what’s still needs to change

20 years in a PR agency this month – my agency Weber Shandwick in its various forms, and in various specialist, domestic and international roles – and 31 years in PR. In all that time, the most change has been in the past five years or so.

The Cannes Festival of Creativity, FKA The Advertising Festival, which kicks off today in earnest, opened its doors to our industry 6 years ago. Suddenly we were in the bigger world of bigger ideas (and bigger budgets). After a slow start we are holding our own. Last year a PR agency, Edelman, co-won the Grand Prix for the first time. (Proud to say that currently we are the most Cannes Lions winning PR firm in Europe.)


Digital and particularly social media have driven the pace of change. It has changed how we think of our approaches to communication. More engagement, less broadcast (even though, as I point out ad nauseum , our founding principle as a discipline was dialogue).

Creativity at the forefront – though less the creativity of whacky “free media” attracting stunts and photo opps and more the creativity of innovation and helping clients tackle the really difficult issues, seize the bigger opportunities and break through the online white noise and really engage with customers and citizens.

A real focus on measurement and ROI as we move from being a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants discipline to one that talks more about business impact and less about the volume of press clippings.

Creative technology (worth reading the post by our creative tech chief Patrick Chauphan on the Weber Shandwick EMEA blog) increasingly enabling us to bring our ideas to life rather than them ‘living’ on a flip chart in a brainstorm room.

Embedded image permalink


Diversifying our intake to include people from advertising, media buying, filmmaking, research and analytics, medical PhDs, computer programming, animation etc.

The PR agency world of today is a much faster paced, intellectually ambitious and curious world than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. It’s an enjoyable ride.

So what does that mean for people trying to break into the PR agency world today?

Firstly, you have to live the digital life, not just study it and be literate in case studies and have a moribund Twitter account. This year we have recruited more proven creative content creators in our trainee intake than ever before, whatever their academic background. I want to hire the next Jamal Edwards, not just the next Alastair Campbell.



Secondly, get literate in numbers, analytics, measurement.

Thirdly, balance your internships to include time with in-house teams, not just at agencies. Less and less career PR agency folk have spent time in house. You need a balance and to understand what goes on client side. Clients are seeking like minded partners not just service vendors.

Fourthly, look up from the college library computer screen and get curious about the world around you, the issues that are driving debate about business, culture and society. Those are the cross-winds clients are trying to negotiate. No brand exists in a cultural or societal vacuum. Preferably don’t just observe, participate. We have trainees joining us who have helped run non profit campaigns, taken a personal lead on issues.

Fifthly, brush up on your emotional intelligence. Listening is a greater skill in PR than being able to talk the hind legs off a donkey.


The pace of change in PR has never been faster. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

What’s changed and what still has to change – part two of my blog reflecting on 20 years this month in a PR agency


When I ran Shandwick Public Affairs back in the late 1990s, I once threatened to fire a staffer for referring to colleagues in the consumer practice as “the girls on roller skates”.

But in truth the guy had probably never met s consumer PR, let alone studied the work. In those days Shandwick was a relatively loose collection of different branded businesses in offices scattered across London, with no connectivity on clients or via technology, and little incentive or the knowledge to collaborate.

I set about wooing the heads of other businesses, most of whom were initially bemused by lunch invites from, and interest shown by, this suited creature from Planet Politics.

But it worked and I started to acquire tech clients and consumer brands by talking about something most of us take for granted, though clients often still see our industry as lacking – integration, fuelled by collaboration.

When I became UK CEO in the early noughties, I did my first talk to our consumer team. I said that it was wrong to regard politics as “corporate”, then a byword for spin doctors in suits and ties. Politics was consumer PR in its most naked form – trying to aggressively earn consumer preference for a brand that will govern many aspects of your life for years to come, not one brand of car or credit card over another.

For all the modern failure of political spin in a digital and politically disengaged world, modern political communications until recently did understand things that brands have learned from and now usually do better – the importance of insights and research, strategy, and seamless integration of messaging from the bumper sticker to the speech soundbite.

Collaboration takes trust, understanding, mutual respect and encouragement, and leadership from the top of agencies. Any senior people I have fired at my firm I have not fired for failure to hit numbers in the short term, but for failure to collaborate.

Fast forward to today. 90% of the clients in my London office use more than one practice area or specialism. That is true across our network. Companies are increasingly converging consumer brand and corporate brand, often under the same CCMO – Chief Communications & Marketing Officer. That’s the way their world is and agencies, or at least those with multiple disciplines and specialisms, have to work in the same seamless way. Nothing pisses clients off more than agencies playing the P&L barrier game.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking the niche specialist agencies. I like to learn from them and some of the PR leaders I admire are running them.  Indeed while convergence and integration is a trend, so is niche specialisation, either in industry verticals or sub-sections of those verticals like clean technology, consumer or corporate or digital healthcare, but also in niche services like employee engagement and sustainability.

Ten years ago niche agencies knocked multi-practice agencies as “generalists”. Quite how having fifty trend and brand and lifestyle savvy consumer specialists, with access to planners and creatives and data scientists, made my firm less consumer specialist than an independent firm of thirty consumer specialists, was never something I understood. It was bollocks then and even more bollocks now.

Of course the great thing about PR coming to Cannes six years ago is we now see the new wave of integration – across the marketing disciplines. Ten years ago the PR agency would be called in by the advertising agency to write a press release about their latest lovely ad. Now PR agencies are equal partners, if not the lead creative partner for the client. (I don’t want to understate it. Last year we partnered with Marketing Week magazine in the UK on a survey of CMOs on the state of client-agency relationships. The majority still saw the ad agency as their lead partner, but then proceeded to moan about them on things like engaging content creation and strategic thinking. A challenge but also an opportunity for PR agencies.)

So integration is a reality and collaboration is good and our industry is a better place where it happens.