I’ve come out of Cannes 2014 convinced that earned media and influencer marketing is a powerful part of the future, and that creativity plays a huge role in making them work. The power of a story is often directly proportional to the level of creativity. Creativity at scale takes earned media to a new level.  For those of us in the PR space, I call this “The Cannes Factor.”

Earned media’s combination of credibility and capacity for authentic storytelling aligns well with today’s expectations of consumers and audiences. The Grand Prix-winning PR Lion campaign – The Scarecrow– built awareness of the Chipotle Mexican Grill’s “food with integrity initiative” through earned media, then followed with outstanding creative and drove engagement through couponing. The campaign was purposeful, educational and spoke to an authentic issue at the heart of what Chipotle stands for.  The creative storytelling was brilliant. And, for the first time since the festival’s system of crediting partnering agencies was introduced, this award was actually won by a PR firm, in tandem with CAA.

As Paul Holmes pointed out – the PR industry is sparking to the idea that we need to enhance creativity and show up stronger at Cannes. The winning work reveals that earned media has a critical role to play. But, Ketchum EMEA chairman David Gallagher told Paul Holmes, “that watching the awards presentation this year, he began to wonder for the first time whether the industry’s work was simply not up to standard.”

As a long-time veteran of #SXSW, and a first time attendee at #Canneslions, I couldn’t help but make a connection between the important roles these conferences have played in evolving the PR Industry. When social achieved scale, PR firms went to SXSW in a big way to leverage the experience to find new talent, activate on behalf of clients and also learn about new technology platforms critical to the protection and development of “democratized” brands. As an industry, we have come a long way in the last 5 years at integrating social and digital strategies into every aspect of our business and refining our offering as a result.  That evolution represents a significant wave of innovation for PR firms.  The Cannes Factor will drive the next paradigm shift in the PR industry:  building creative scale, both in terms of agency structure and talent as well as in terms of stronger creative ideas that power stories.

Advertising, media and digital agencies are already dipping their toes in the water of PR. Might they now jump in with both feet, buying PR agencies, hiring respected talent from the PR establishment and more firmly occupy more ground with a new wave of award-winning PR campaigns?   Or, will PR firms hit the ground running on the creativity front, and show up bigger and better next year?

The PR industry is at a historic crossroads, a tipping point. We face an enormous opportunity to build and dominate as the power of earned media and influencer marketing gains more velocity.  PR has the opportunity to soar to a higher level of respect and importance than it has ever before enjoyed in the world of communications.

But non-PR competitors see clearly what the PR insiders fail to see: that a highly refined creative skill to tell an authentic story across multiple channels is a huge differentiator.  The out-of-industry competitors put great creative at the center.  Many PR firms serve it on the side.  They often invest less than they should, aren’t always methodical about starting with an awesome creative idea and roil at process discipline.

That’s what I believe must change. PR firms must embrace creativity as a differentiator, or otherwise find themselves relegated as a tactical player for the earned media space.  More Creatives must be hired and integrated, in the same way that we integrated social and digital specialists. 

Next year at Cannes, the PR industry may find itself in the throes of one of the most significant structural shifts it has ever seen.  Will we see PR agencies taking greater share of the wins?   A year isn’t that far away.  

So what should the PR agencies do?   Here is a list of key steps we need to take to address this issue:

1.    Recognize the problem.  We need to get real about the significance this shift is having on our business. Nothing will happen until firms see the situation at hand, agree to its gravity and realize that solving it requires drastic measures.

2.    Have the will to change.One thing I learned from my years in the social and digital space is that change is a constant.  On that side of the business, we went with the change, embraced it and thrived off of it.  The PR industry must become ever more nimble if it is to evolve. And that is going to mean making some tough choices, not least about resource expenditure and billing models. Think creatively about how to solve the challenge.  Many solutions for new structures, partnerships, monetization, and re-engineering are possible.  There’s no one answer.  There are many.  As leaders, we need to explore options and be open to innovation

3.    Work! At Cannes, we heard many explain that the role of creativity is to inspire and Jared Leto stated that “The bridge between a creative dream and reality is work.”Every PR professional I know is an incredibly hard worker.  It’s time to make sure the rest of the communications industry understands that our core values - editorial integrity and real-time relevance – is differentiated. That is going to take some work.

4.    Invest in talent.  The Holmes Report Arun Sudhaman has stated, “Nowhere is the talent shortage more pressing, furthermore, than in the PR industry’s creative ranks.”  A new agency structure requires new creative visionaries who can uplift the work and make it soar to new heights as well as the data-focused futurists who have the ability to take it deeper by peering into one’s soul.  A talent shake up is required. And don’t expect those new creative hires to be billable instantly. That’s why it’s called investment. Revenue will come, but some courage is required to make the hire.

5.    Determine to be back at Cannes next year, bigger and better.  It was great to see the PR agencies bringing people to Cannes this year.  It certainly feels as if there was a core presence at least by the bigger agencies.  Still, the presence is small compared to the ad agencies, media companies and even all the venture capitalists lurking on yachts offshore.  I hope agencies will use Cannes as an annual benchmark on their progress and seek to invest more, show more, win more and send more people to Cannes.

I believe in my colleagues in the PR industry.  I know many of us recognize the opportunity ahead of us.  And, I know the commitment will come, the investment will come and the creative excellence will result. 

But, let’s see what a year brings and the progress we can measure at Cannes next year. After all, the lines just aren’t blurring, there are officially gone. 

Stephanie Agresta is global practice director for social media and digital at MSLGroup.