Saturday, March 23, 2013

Is the creativity gap in P.R. largely a systemic problem?

While necessity is widely accepted as the mother of invention, the father remains disputed. Many believe it is creativity and I tend to agree since in public relations, creativity matters more than ever before. For a P.R. practitioner, the appropriate definition of creativity is in the words of former Harvard Business School professor and movie producer, John Kao, “The crucial variable in turning knowledge into value is creativity.”
As per a recent global study on Creativity in PR by Holmes Report and NowGoCreate, in partnership with Ketchum, 61% of all P.R. practitioners and 66% of in-house corporate communications executives agreed to the fact that the P.R. industry lacked big ideas.  It is quite a paradox that a discipline that has storytelling at its core, lacks creativity. After all, stories have fired human imagination from time immemorial. What may be fueling that argument is the fact that over the years creativity has been allowed to fall behind overriding issues such as budget constraint, overservicing, talent acquisition and lack of measurement of results. My experience has led me to believe that the problem lies elsewhere – in fact it has now become systemic.
Global Study on Creativity in PR by The Holmes Report

In most P.R. firms, a client servicing team is expected to do media relations, account management, content creation, client reporting and in some cases, media/digital monitoring, and all this for multiple accounts/clients. While the tasks are divided between different levels and, in an ideal situation, should be undertaken seamlessly, many of us in the business know how often team members across levels are drawn into the day-to-day tasks owing to multiple reasons –attrition, performance issues, client escalations and erratic client asks. Having gone through the drill for a good part of my career, I’m not surprised that creativity has fallen off the priority list for most client servicing teams. When the choice is between keeping the ship afloat and discovering new lands, the preference is a no-brainer.

In-house corporate communication teams have their fair share of issues. Many of them have to work with such a limited internal remit that they hardly have any clout to push creative ideas through the senior management team. Consequently, they are unable to secure the budgets to execute these ideas. In most cases, the ‘big ideas’ proposed during a pitch preparation are left to rot as the in-house team gets busy in pushing the agency to meet the endless expectations of internal stakeholders through press meetings and resultant clips.

That said, a growing number of P.R. consultancies genuinely value creativity and there are clients who are prepared to fund the idea provided the outcome has a clear impact on the client's business objectives.      

The point therefore is that if the problem is systemic, it is important for P.R. firms to keep client limitations aside, introspect and take the first steps. Change is far easier on the agency side than within the corporate environment.

Creativity must become the norm and the lack of creativity, the exception. Creativity is not like some chocolate chips sprinkled on a cake. Neither is it a switch that can be put on just before a pitch or plan and switched off later. The firm should create an aspiration of creativity built on the bedrock of knowledge. The very ethos of the organization must reflect creative thinking– from the design of the office space to everything that defines the work environment.

Every way must be explored to stimulate out-of-box thinking whether through information sharing, greater collaboration across teams and offices, giving new experiences and contacting people from other disciplines. A creative idea can come from anywhere – not just in doing client tasks. A regulated and siloed environment is among the biggest impediments to creativity. 

Advertising agencies went through a similar learning curve. The model adopted was that of having a central creative team that drives ideation for various client servicing teams. But this does not mean that client servicing teams wash their hands off ideation since they understand the client’s requirements, communication strategy and constraints better than anyone else. In fact, the job of risk-testing the idea is primarily that of the servicing team.

What better testament to the success of this model than the fact that most advertising agencies are personified by their creative heads. Perhaps P.R. agencies need to try out this tested model. There is already a move in this direction as P.R. firms appoint Chief Creative Officers with the purpose of forming a core creative team.

But again, this is no silver bullet. If firms do not motivate all employees, be it in client servicing or creative team, to take risk and be bold in their ideas, the purpose would be defeated.

To take advantage of this new structure, P.R. consultants need to redefine their remit beyond churning out media stories or adding fans to a brand’s Facebook page. If they want to challenge the perceived strength of advertising agencies in creativity, they need to lead integrated campaigns with the idea at the heart of the campaign.

As traditional P.R. and digital communications become increasingly commoditized, creativity is taking centrestage. It’s for the agencies to decide if they are ready to change – by weeding out the old complacent model to one that facilitates and incentivizes creativity at every level and at every step. P.R practitioners need to ask themselves - How long will the industry live in status quo? How long will they work within a limited remit defined by others? How long will they be scared to stick their necks out for a big idea owing to the fear of failure?

In an interesting case, my team once lost a pitch because the client felt that we were being too bold. The in-house executive said that while he loved the thinking, he would never be able to get a buy-in for these ideas from his management. My team did not have an iota of regret for what we presented.

When the subject is creativity, who can be more inspiring than Steve Jobs. In Jobs’ words – “Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”