Why Zen like creativity brainstorms in PR are nonsense

Every PR agency you’ll ever speak to will tell you how wonderfully creative they are, as if this in some way marks them out from all of the other PR agencies when, in truth, it’s almost the same thing as proudly exclaiming “We have telephones at our office!” Whenever a PR person says “I think creativity is really important…” in a meeting and then sits back with a smug expression, as though they’ve delivered some earth-shattering strategic insight that will propel the agency to global domination, my feelings can best be described with this image: blogfunnyAgencies elevate the pursuit of creativity to some kind of Zen like state of enlightenment that must be relentlessly analysed, debated and workshopped.* Creativity is viewed as a strategic challenge that can be solved with the right processes and policies, yet somehow it always remains elusive. And let’s be honest, regardless of how loudly they shout about their creativity, most PR agencies go about things in much the same way. This way of thinking about creativity always perplexed me. When I worked on consumer magazines, we never really thought about creativity at all, we just did it. When we needed to think up feature ideas or decide what to put on the cover we just got together in a room and bounced ideas off each other. If it wasn’t working, we’d go away and think on it, then try again later. There was no process, no set of rules, no creativity workshop, just a room full of bright people trying to solve a problem. For a while after I got into PR I thought the reason the industry was so confused about creativity was simply that people are either naturally creative or they are not, and the quality of ideas your agency generates is simply a product of what kind of people it employs. But what I’ve learnt over the years of working at and with different agencies is that they are all creative, the only difference is in how well the culture allows that creativity to thrive. When you’ve got an office full of smart people with different interests and outlooks, it’s practically impossible for them to not come up with creative ideas when you put them into a room together with a problem to crack. If you want the natural creativity of your team to flourish, I think there are some simple things you can do to make that happen:
  • It’s hard to be creative when you’re stressed and tired – if your team is overworked and worried about missing deadlines, they’re not going to be in the right frame of mind to come up with clever ideas
  • Brainstorms are stupid – dragging people into a meeting with little notice and expecting them to creatively solve a problem on the spot, under pressure, will not work
  • People need time to think – tell people what the problem is early on, give them time to mull it over, let then sleep on it or think it through over a weekend
  • It’s a process – you can’t solve everything in one go. Once you’ve thought about the problem, get together and throw ideas each other, if nothing’s working, go away and think about it some more
  • Try thinking about the challenge in different ways – my favourite is to imagine how famous brands might try to solve the same problem
  • Let junior staff speak first – they might be afraid to disagree with the ideas of senior staff, so let them have their say
  • Don’t overlook your introverts – not everybody is confident enough to share their ideas in front of everybody, give your quieter staff the opportunity to speak, away from the group if necessary
Creativity is not a USP, or a strategy or a commodity, it’s just something that most humans can do, under the right circumstances. If you try to impress a prospective client by telling them how creative you are, you’re just telling them what they’ve already heard from every other agency.  Good ideas, however, speak for themselves. *Sorry, I verbed the hell out of that noun, and I feel bad about it. Lance Concannon is the founder of Disruptive Communications