Our industry is experiencing a wrenching crisis of creativity. The poor performance of PR agencies at last summer’s Cannes Lions has been much chewed over and predictable excuses trotted out (no time, small budgets, lack of staff, lack of tools etc). 

Then came a Holmes Report study revealing that more than 50 percent of PR professionals felt PR creativity levels were “ordinary or worse.” For a supposedly creative industry that’s pretty damning.

Having spent 15 years working in award winning creative agencies (including VCCP, Ogilvy New York and Naked Communications) and now working in PR at The Good Relations Group, creativity is a subject I feel strongly about. Creativity is the life-blood of any advertising agency, so much so that egos are indulged, tempers fray and mountains get moved to bring an idea to life. Clients get sold and re-sold and re-sold an idea if an agency believes in it. An idea can change everything. At worst, PR creativity can seem to mean getting as many post-it notes as possible up on a wall, or cringe-worthy clichés and tacky celebrity photo-shoots.

In my experience there are three elements that PR agencies need to focus on if they want to improve their creativity. I don’t think that the solution to our creativity crisis lies in simply hiring a creative director (although I actually do think that PR agencies need them). Rather, it lies in a culture shift towards curiosity, constraints and conflict.

Creativity starts with a curious mindset. Without curiosity there can be no creativity. The most curious people are the most interesting, constantly collecting experiences and ideas from everywhere. They make unexpected connections because they are open, alert and plugged in. It’s the agency’s job to create a curious culture. The American documentary photographer Walker Evans said about curiosity: “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” That sentiment should permeate everywhere.

The second thing to think about is constraints. Marissa Meyer, then head of user experience at Google, gave a talk at Stanford in which she said that creativity loves constraints. She was referring to technological constraints such as pixel size, file sizes and download speeds but Meyer makes a valid point about creativity generally. PR creativity suffers because it is unfocused. I was amazed to find out that, often, creative briefs are not written. How can you possibly know what problem you’re trying to solve without a proper, considered brief, complete with constraints?

What would have happened if Michelangelo had been told to paint whatever he wanted in the Sistene Chapel? Or if he had been told to paint the ceiling in order to cover up the cracks and damp or to paint the ceiling using red, green and blue? Those briefs don’t lead to much creativity. However when he was told to paint the ceiling in a way that inspired the audience to believe in the greater glory of God by bringing to life key bible stories then unprecedented creativity was unleashed. Constraining briefs unlock great creative ideas.

Finally, I think PR agencies need to embrace conflict more. Advertising agencies are filled with conflict. It doesn’t always make for a fun working environment, but it does make for better creative work. The triangular structure of ad agencies (suits, planners, creatives) means that everyone constantly faces internal battles which sharpens up ideas long before they are sold to clients. A bit of fear does wonders for an idea. PR agencies need more arguments and more balls.

One quote in the Creativity in PR study read: “PR people are fearful pleasers and wimps. Instead of fighting, we whine. It’s easier.” I agree. 2013 has to be the year that the PR industry ups its game creatively and takes the fight to the advertising world and beyond. It’s never been a more exciting time to be a creative obsessive in the PR industry. 

Amelia Torode is head of digital and innovation at the Good Relations Group.