Is there a creativity crisis in public relations?

There’s objective and subjective evidence to suggest that as an industry we’re not as creative as we could be. When The Holmes Group and consulting firm Kelly & Lugbauer surveyed clients earlier this year, we found that while they generally gave their agencies high marks for their administrative systems and budgeting, they gave them their second lowest marks—out of 40 separate criteria—for creativity.

Similarly, when I led a roundtable discussion of clients on behalf of the Council of PR Firms late last year, asking them what they were looking for from their PR firms, several complained that their firms did not deliver the kind of big, breakthrough thinking they were looking for, or that they tended to deliver “PR ideas” rather than “brand ideas” that were relevant across disciplinary borders.

Then there are our own SABRE Awards. For the past three years, judges have been complaining that while they see plenty of “solid, block and tackle” programs, they don’t see nearly as much freshness and originality as they used to. Agencies are relying on tried and tested ideas; they would rather be known as reliable singles hitters than swing for the fences and run the risk of striking out. (The aversion to risk of the U.S. PR business was made all the more evident when we held out first European SABRE competition last year. The best programs on the other side of the Atlantic seemed edgier, wittier, more risky and—not incidentally—more risqué.)

So we turned to some of the most creative people in the public relations business to learn whether they agreed there was a problem and to find out whether they thought we could fix it.

A Working Definition

In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart explained his view of the obscenity laws by telling his audience, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced… But I know it when I see it.”

When it comes to creativity, a lot of us have the same problem. Creativity in public relations is difficult to define, but we all believe we recognize it when confronted with it. So the first thing we asked our creativity experts was whether they could provide a working definition of what exactly we are talking about. The answers underscored the difficulty inherent in any attempt to quantify creativity.

“A creative idea is all in the approach and delivery,” says Thomas Coyne, president of New Jersey’s Coyne Public Relations, one of the current crop of hot creative PR boutiques. “Finding new ways to communicate common messages is the essence of creativity. Whether your creativity takes form of a stunt or study, it must entertain and inform the media who will report it and the consumers who buy it.”

But finding a working definition that covers all the forms of creativity required in the PR business is not easy.

“Creativity can take so many forms,” says Rick French, president of North Carolina public relations firm French/West/Vaughan. “From a well written news release to a wonderfully staged publicity event to a viral marketing campaign that is intended to stimulate long-term ‘word of mouth’ as opposed to short-term and immediate press coverage.”

Says Doug Dome, head of the Chicago-based DomeH&K division of international agency Hill & Knowlton and previously founder of one of the nation’s hottest creative boutiques, “The definition of creativity in public relations or any other communication discipline is never static. History has shown us that dynamism in the creative aesthetic is the only thing that remains constant.

“Clearly something that might have been appealing, enticing, humorous, sexy, or emotive in the past, might not garner the same response today. Conversely, sometimes these creative aesthetics return in the form of nostalgia.”

But Bill Fleishman, executive vice president of brand marketing at Boston-based Cone, believes: “The definition of what a client wants out of creativity has changed rather than the definition of creativity itself. In the past, clients wanted a program that would simply stand out, break-through the clutter, and raise awareness.  Today, marketers are more sophisticated in their objectives and are looking for that same creativity to drive program impact and outcome. 

“Clients want to see how this creativity can be applied to programs that will have a greater chance to solve business needs, such as brand loyalty and sales goals. More and more, stunts that simply drive awareness are being stripped out of programs and are being replaced with more substantive elements such as blogging tactics, influencer marketing, and word of mouth efforts. Clients are placing higher value on strategies that use creativity to drive success in these areas.”

In other words, creativity today has to be more strategic. Gail Heimann, co-president of the global marketing practice at Weber Shandwick and president of the firm’s New York office, says, “It used to be that creativity was less about a core idea than the cosmetic flourishes around it... a whiz-bang celeb , balloons, blimps, imaginative use of animated icons or live animals. For more sophisticated marketers and their PR teams today, there must be a stripped-down, central core idea that is ‘creative,’ that fuses unexpected concepts and that immediately—and with no balloons or dancing poodles—commands the audiences’ attention, that generates an ‘aha.’”

Glenn Karwoski, president of Minneapolis-based public relations firm Karwoski & Courage, also teaches creativity at the graduate level at the University of St. Thomas. He says, “Something that’s bizarre, unique, novel, different can be considered creative because it’s all in the eye of the beholder. But I think there’s short-term creativity—the publicity stunt—and long-term, sustainable creativity like the work that Binney & Smith [the company that owns the Crayola brand] does. 

“Short-term creativity is easy; long-term creativity is tough. The world’s largest (insert any object) is such a tired tactic, but one that agencies fall back on time and time again for an almost sure publicity bet. The same goes for celebrities pitching products: there’s nothing creative about the latest chef or home improvement television personality talking about food or home furnishings, but it’s a way to generate media coverage.

“So, what’s creative? In my world, real creativity is something that is unique, has strategic value, and provides some meaningful, sustainable momentum to a brand. Notice I didn’t say ‘measurable,’ because what’s measurable is often not meaningful to clients.”

But others believe the impact of creativity has to be measured, and not just in terms of the media coverage generated. The expectations of public relations have changed says Karen Strauss, director of global strategic and creative planning at Ketchum. They are “no longer limited to publicity results. Today true creative must produce business results. As such, a creative concept is one that’s so unique or clever that it actually motivates and/or produces change in behavior.

“It has to be noticed, compelling and relevant to the savvy client who is buying it, and then by the publics it’s intended to affect. At Ketchum, we say, ‘creative ideas must have the power to surprise, enchant, influence and endure.’”

One thing almost everyone agrees on, however, is that the creative bar has been raised in recent years—and not just for PR people.

Says Heimann, “I think it’s important to note that the new age of technology has raised the perceptual bar on creativity. It’s easy to be seduced by the ability to podcast or moblog, but you need a message creative enough to transcend the medium.”

And Dome adds: “We currently find ourselves in an over-exposed and over-stimulated culture which makes its necessary to find unique ways to not only communicate the message, but to ensure that the message is heard. Although you can never write-off the big publicity stunt, people are becoming more sophisticated in how they process such messaging. Ultimately and invariably, you must know what speaks to your audience before opening your mouth.

“Creativity in PR lies in a smart, strategic idea. Creativity isn’t a confetti word or a frivolous pursuit. Creativity is innovation, dynamism. It’s elevated thinking and a fresh approach. It’s an innovative solution to any business problem. Creativity means, ultimately, better ideas. While a big publicity stunt may garner media attention, it takes a smart and integrated idea to make an impact.”

Still the Poor Relation?

The dominant role of advertising in marketing communication may be a thing of the past, but advertising is still widely regarded as a creative profession, and one to which the public relations field is still unfavorably compared. For one thing, creativity in advertising is up their on the page or the screen, for all to see; for another, creativity is celebrated and rewarded in the advertising business (sometimes to the exclusion of all else) in a way it is not in PR.

So how does the standard of creativity in PR compare to the standard of creativity in advertising?

Rick French, who owns both a midsize PR agency and a boutique advertising agency, says he sees some of the most creative ideas coming from the PR side. “Many ad agencies are still too dependent on print ads and the 30 second TV spot, whereas our PR business is aggressively counseling clients to utilize more leading edge communication channels such as pod casts, blogs, relationship marketing and the like.”

“The criteria for whether PR or advertising ideas are creative are similar,” says Strauss. “Both must attract attention among intended audiences, generate talk value beyond expectations, influence attitudes and behavior, motivate and ultimately achieve business impact. Both disciplines struggle today to rise above the din—and PR perhaps has a slight edge in connecting with a cynical public.”

Ketchum, she says, has borrowed from the advertising planning discipline by integrating a planning process into its approach to creativity. “Gone are the days when we assemble in a room to hatch the zaniest idea possible. We apply a discipline that points creative groups to brainstorm around a strategy that’s based on audience insight.”

But public relations creativity faces several challenges that advertising does not, practitioners say.

“The creative PR concept has to withstand a different set of ‘torture tests’ from those developed by our advertising brethren,” says Heimann. “Like ad concepts, PR ideas need to pass muster with sometimes conservative clients. Assuming the PR version of the ‘big idea’ makes it through that round and moves to an executional phase, it is then interpreted by and presented to the target audience through various media channels.”

Fleishman agrees: “Creativity must be a core competency for all agencies—regardless of the discipline. However, having worked in both the advertising and PR disciplines myself, I find that coming up with a creative idea to fill space or time that is purchased to be far easier than developing a creative idea for a PR program. In the world of PR, practitioners must apply a filter of third-party relevancy to every idea. If the idea does not resonate with the media, consumers may never get the chance to recognize the creativity, or worse, never hear the message at all.”

Coyne explains: “Advertising and promotions have the opportunity to communicate directly to consumers, whereas PR is filtered through the media. In that regard, the media can be thought of as prism—shoot light into a prism and it refracts; shoot a message through the media and it also refracts. The key to success is to anticipate where the refraction will lead, and determine the most appropriate tactic based upon the refraction of the message. 

“Additionally, just to make it a tougher, the media who are experts in your client’s category are brilliant at spotting non-essential messages and work hard to keep their news from becoming commercials. Such considerations need to be taken when developing your creative direction.”

Karwoski, another executive who has worked in both public relations and advertising, believes advertising’s edge in creativity is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He points to the work done by ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky—currently regarded as one of the hottest creative ad agencies—in putting Mini Coopers on top of big  SUVs and driving them around time.

“Clients and other agencies sit back and say, ‘Whoa, that’s not an ad, but I don’t care what it is, give me something like that.’ But the type of thing that Crispin is doing is the kind of thing that PR people have been doing for decades—and I don’t mean just the publicity stunt, which is what the Mini Cooper thing is, but using non-traditional forms of media and promotion to generate awareness, interest and understanding. 

“But advertising is much better at taking credit, so when Crispin puts the Mini on a giant
SUV and drives around town, it’s revolutionary and The New York Times writes about it. When PR agencies do similar things, it’s just all in a day’s work. That’s probably because ad agencies have been locked into paid media solutions for so long that doing anything outside of that realm is revolutionary for them.”

But if there’s so much creativity around, who are the creative geniuses of our business. It’s telling that when we asked the seven participants in our discussion to identify a creative leader in the public relations business, only one could name an individual who did not work for his or her own agency. And one replied bluntly: “Unfortunately, I know of no true creative leaders in the public relations industry.”

Are Clients a Part of the Problem?

Public relations may face tougher challenges than advertising, and it may not get the credit it deserves, but the fact remains that for PR agencies, client perceptions are reality. So what are clients looking for?

On one level, the answer is easy. “Clients are looking for marketing solutions that work,” says Doug Dome. But they are also hungry for creativity.

“Every client wants creative ideas,” says Heimann. :The pitch is the time and place to show how ‘creative’ the team can be. And clients want, and should get, great creative teams on their business.”

Adds Fleishman, “Clients do value creativity and like to see how an agency responds to a business challenge—especially in a new business environment. Often, there is an unspoken ‘entertainment factor’ for clients who are involved in the agency selection process and the creativity behind an idea is what makes the time spent in a pitch more enjoyable and the agency more attractive.”

But sometimes clients lose their appetite for creativity after the pitch. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard complaints from public relations firms that won new business on the back of a big creative idea, only to be told once they started working on an account that they should try to come up with something more “realistic” or “practical.”

“Virtually every client says he or she is looking for fresh, break-through, out of the box ideas,” says Karwoski. “And 95 percent of them will never execute them because they are comfortable staying in the box. I think clients want to know that agencies are capable of generating big ideas, but are not comfortable executing them because of a number of variables in really pushing to execute big ideas.”

There is clearly a feeling among practitioners that clients have become more conservative in their approach to PR.

“In secure economic times, there’s more tolerance to try new things,” says Strauss. “In tight economic times, clients are wary of buying concepts without proven track records. Some clients see creativity as risk-taking, with the false belief that the more creative, the more likely to fail. Clients are guarding budgets. They have pressure to prove ROI, and need to see that a highly creative idea will achieve business goals.  Creativity is often producing ideas that deliver ROI on tight budgets.

“In our experience, new assignments are often won with big, exciting ideas. It is also our experience that as more decision makers mull over ideas, their originality can suffer dilution. More often than not, a different version of the original idea is often what gets executed, usually reflecting the views of a larger group.”

Heimann, meanwhile, estimates that only “about 50 percent” of creative ideas that win pitches ever get executed.

One reason is that clients “are living in a world of six-sigma, prove the value by showing me the immediate results world and taking a risk on a big idea is just that—taking a risk,” says Karwoski.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with demanding that public relations programs deliver ROI—in fact, it’s essential to the future development of the profession that they do so. But it can force both firms and clients to focus on what’s easily quantifiable, or worse, on what’s predictable—which creativity isn’t..

“The emphasis on measurability in today’s market is a result of activities and programs that didn’t work, and a lack of agency accountability,” says Dome. Clients focus on what’s easily measurable “because they haven¹t been provided with any other compelling criteria by which to judge their agency. They focus on ever-evolving measurement standards, they nitpick about billing systems and examine account staffing, all the while starving for a real, inspiring reason to choose an agency partner. 

“Creativity is that reason. Creativity inspires clients. Creativity gives us better ideas to sell. Clients will buy a better idea. And, armed with the better idea, we can deliver better results.”

And clients—ably abetted by the agencies themselves—undermine creativity in other ways.

“Time is the biggest problem and ‘creativity-on-demand’ is the ultimate creativity-killer,” says Strauss. “Turn-around time expectations have gotten shorter and shorter, both during the pitch phases and for incremental client programming, leaving agencies scarce time for discovery—that essential research period that leads to creative insight. It is only through insight that we can truly achieve breakthrough creative ideas.”

But at the end of the day “barriers to creativity are always self-imposed,” says Dome. “This is not to say that clients might not set up parameters from within creative ideas must be generated. But parameters must not be seen as restrictions. In fact, if you look at the history of creative ideas, many of the very best worked within parameters. Sergeant Pepper’s was recorded on only 4-tracks. Picasso went through a whole period primarily using the color blue. Seinfeld was confined to a 30-minute time slot and was limited by censors.

“Of course there are clients who demand you stay within certain political or socially-sensitive parameters, but that should not be mistaken as a directive for dullness. It is an agency’s responsibility to be creative in a holistic way and to apply that creativity to each project.”

Coyne agrees. “The barriers to creativity are laziness and complacency,” he says. “Creativity involves reaching the extra inch, digging deep, recasting your perspective and breaking down the walls of normalcy that may be built—or that you may have built—around you, especially with clients with whom you may have worked for an extended period of time. It all comes down to caring a little more and working a little harder. The biggest threat to creativity is when the agency stops trying to reach new heights and stops trying to break new ground, and instead resigns itself to the status quo.”