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Creativity in PR:  How to translate complicated ideas into simple, relevant and timely campaigns

With Cannes just around the corner, many PR chiefs are already yawning in anticipation of the ad agencies being feted for their brilliance whilst PR campaigns fail to get as much recognition as they deserve. Those who work in PR know that in many ways, PR is more creative than traditional advertising. As Hans Tranberg, creative associate at communications consultancy Ketchum London, says “PR needs to be more creative than other marketing disciplines, sometimes the most, because the competition for eyeballs is so high. There are so many brands out there and at some point there is little differentiation as brands continue to compete for consumer attention.”

Tranberg adds that in PR, just having a great idea is not enough – an integrated, creative strategy for the implementation and distribution of that idea is just as important. “This is why it is important to have access to the right research, insights and strategy as these elements help guide the creative and then you have the facts to back up your approach.”

Anastasia Ivanova, associate director at PR agency LEWIS, agrees that creativity is vital, and also that this is just part of the mix, as PROs must translate complicated ideas into simple, relevant and timely campaigns: “Targeting 'fun' and 'viral' without the ‘purposeful’, ‘ethical’ and ‘strategic’ when it comes to creativity – is like playing the PR version of Russian roulette. It'll get you in trouble. Remember last year Adidas tweeting “Congratulations, you survived the Boston Marathon” three years after the 2013 Boston marathon bombing? Or BIC’s South Africa Women’s Day twitter campaign a few years back advising women to ‘Think like a man’? Such creative betrays siloed, one-sided thinking. This is where an integrated PR/marcomms approach and industry diversity are so vital. 

“Best marcoms creatives are like Olympic athletes: a combination of raw talent and relentless training. They also require the right atmosphere to flourish. Anxiety, stress and toxic work environments are to creatives what insecticides are to butterflies. That's why employee wellbeing, work-life balance and even such simple things as fresh fruit and artworks in the office are all so vital to the future of creative PR.”

Below, three creative heads discuss ways of coming up with great ideas, and ways of nurturing people to be more creative.  

Sources of inspiration

Ruth Pipkin, managing director of agency Rewired PR: “I get inspiration from lots of different sources, but I’m at my most creative if I get out of the day to day and into a completely different environment. If I feel like I’m suffering from creative block I’ll go on a long walk or climb a big hill – there’s something about looking at the horizon that changes your perspective.

“When we’re developing ideas for clients we always try and include a creative visual exercise as a warm-up for the team or hold our brainstorms off-site to encourage us all to think differently.

“I believe that a level of creativity can definitely be nurtured, but some people will naturally be more creative than others. A conscious decision we’ve made over the past couple of years it to build a diverse team that brings a spectrum of experience to the table. We have also recruited outside of the sector to bring different viewpoints to our campaigns.”

Hans Tranberg, creative associate from communications consultancy Ketchum London: ”I’m inspired by evoking emotions in people. More than anything, in today’s incredibly noisy world, it’s important to make people feel something and that requires thinking beyond the norm and what audiences are used to seeing. Here, the freedom to think beyond boundaries inspires me to deliver my best creative work.

“Three tips for being creative are: first, absorb the brief, but don’t let it restrict your thinking – a strong creative idea can be scaled up or down as needed. Second, stay informed on what competitors, and even other non-competitive brands are doing, to avoid the mistake of repeating an idea. Be original, and if you are going to do something similar, make sure you do it a hundred times better! Third, enjoy the journey – creativity should be fun, and it’s easy to forget that when you’re under pressure to deliver.”

Greg Lappage, group creative director at communications agency TVC: “Creative people like challenges, and (sometimes) do a good job of solving them. I think you have to put your energy into things that have importance to you, but that importance can be on multiple levels (intellectual problem solving, societal value, life axiom/ belief system etc.) beyond the creative opportunity.

“In terms of actual touch-points, inspiration is everywhere and it changes daily. We are living in a moment where we are inundated with content. It’s overwhelming; the difficulty is in parsing it – to isolate the good from the average or the derivative, both as a consumer and a creator.

“I firmly believe you can nurture creativity; in fact I’d say it was essential to any creative studio or function within any comms agency. For years we treated creative as a cipher or a little piece of unexplained magic that we sell to clients. Data, a results mentality and multi-agency environments demand that we’re much more open and transparent about process – inviting people in holds its own challenges, both internally and externally.

“It is fundamental and it may sound a bit humanist, but I think if you truly care for people and believe in them then you can grow a creative culture.”

Opinion from Tom Lawless, director at communications firm Headland

Why I don’t believe in creative directors

To go against a trend, I’m not a fan of the creative director title in PR agencies. That set-up can often give the impression creativity is someone else’s responsibility and good creative practice tends to sit with the circle of individuals around them. Some of the creative directors around now are the best operators in the business, but when they leave the creativity often goes with them. I think good creativity has to be institutionalised in the agency structures. It comes from recruitment and training policies, mixing up specialisms across teams so you can see the whole operating landscape, sharing knowledge, bringing in new perspectives and giving teams licence to challenge clients. If the agency is institutionally creative the ideas never run dry, creativity doesn’t diminish when individuals leave and everybody is able to contribute.

PR agencies face a different creative challenge to paid media agencies. Advertisers are generally working with short-term objectives, like sales and acquisition, and need ideas for immediate reaction. PR tends to be about long-term objectives, like changing behaviour or building reputational value. For us, creativity is about connecting dots across an organisation’s operating context and identifying where commercial objectives cross with the needs of its audience. You can see that at work in all of the Cannes Lions PR winners, which in my view are head and shoulders above those awarded for advertising.  

PR may not get the recognition it deserves at Cannes, but at PRmoment, we are constantly impressed by, and generally in awe of, the brilliance of you lot in PR. So our ultimate award for creativity goes to (dramatic pause)... PR!.

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