If there is a crisis of creativity in public relations—and in our recent client survey, conducted in partnership with the consulting firm Kelly & Lugbauer, respondents reserved some of their lowest marks for criteria related to creativity—then we as an industry need to figure out what to do about it. But first, perhaps, we need to figure out whether to do anything at all.

After all, overall client satisfaction scores were pretty good. And a case can certainly be made that with an increasing focus on measurement and evaluation, PR firms are generating programs that help clients meet their communications and business objectives. If a program is effective, does it really matter how creative it is?

We don’t want to fall into the trap of the advertising agency, which presents itself with a plethora of creative awards, all highly sought-after by agencies, and with just one award focused on effectiveness, (the Effie, which attracts fewer entries and generates less excitement). Creativity, after all, should serve a greater purpose: results.

Why creativity matters

But Gail Heimann, head of the New York office and co-leader of the consumer practice at Weber Shandwick Worldwide, has a pithy retort to the suggestion that perhaps creativity is over-rated. “If most people only want to read about the comings and goings of Tom Cruise and Katie, should we simply stop publishing anything else? If the majority would rather eat cheeseburgers and fries than toro and hamachi, should we tell the sushi chefs to hang it up?

“We as an industry have to set the bar high—that is aim for the most inspired, creative approach to any and every communications situation. There are plenty of solid, workmanlike, tactically-driven campaigns that generate passable results and client satisfaction. Our job is to prove that the truly electric, unabashedly creative approach has a different kind of power, the power to deliver results and set the company or organization apart. Real creativity doesn’t just get the job done; it’s transformative.”

Others respond in a similar vein, pointing out that in a competitive business, client satisfaction is not enough; good agencies strive for something more: client delight.

“We don’t see our job as one of satisfying a basic level of expectations from a client, even if they seem content with our performance,” says Kathie Thomas, co-leader of the innovation practice at Fleishman-Hillard. “Our job is to be proactive and help each client reach a new level of innovative strategy they may never imagine—or expect.”

Others see the debate as one primarily of semantics. If a program achieves results, it must by definition have been creative—creative enough to catch the attention of busy reporters, opinion leaders and consumers at least—even if it didn’t involve the kind of whiz-bang creative that gets noticed by the arbiters of creativity.

“Creativity is not over-rated,” says Tom Coyne, president of New Jersey creative boutique Coyne Public Relations, who argues that PR people need to expand their definition of creativity. “It’s not always the stunt that gets 500 TV broadcasts that defines creative; rather creative could be the context in which you cast a trade by-liner or op-ed piece, redesign a booth at a tradeshow, or tweak a strategy to better align a message. Creative is essential to our business and the lack of it matters a lot.”

Glenn Karwoski, president of Twin Cities PR firm Karwoski & Courage, agrees. “I think that clients want to see meaningful results, so if a program is basic ‘blocking and tackling’ and it generates results that are meaningful, I don’t think clients care if it’s creative or not,” he says. “That said, I believe that in order to achieve meaningful results you have to be more creative than your competition.”

And creativity can be invaluable in helping drive success beyond media coverage.

“Creativity matters inasmuch as media coverage alone will rarely be a sufficient conduit to the audiences we are trying to motivate and inspire to action and behavior change,” says Karen Strauss, director of global strategic and creative planning at Ketchum. “Few of the sales-generating PR programs we’ve developed and managed have relied on publicity alone—we’re going viral, grassroots, in-store, inside a corporation to create ambassadorship, online, and so forth to effect the bottom line. For mastery of all these delivery systems for communicating, and mastery of the messages and messengers to do so effectively, creativity will be more crucial than ever.”

Perhaps most important of all, however, creativity can be a source of competitive advantage. Doug Dome, who heads Hill & Knowlton’s Dome HK unit in Chicago, argues that the creativity shortage is “a critical problem because it deprives practitioners of a fundamental point of difference…. Most agencies of our size offer comparable services and strategy, and most agencies are equally competent in execution.”

So firms need to identify or create a compelling and authentic point of difference. Many have tried to do so through size and geography (more offices), broader service offerings, greater investment in research and evaluation. The problem with all of those approaches, says Dome is that “a point of difference must be sustainable to be effective.

“Experience and execution rest with people, and if the people with the experience leave, that point of difference, to some degree, goes with them. And at a time when higher-level executives typically
worked at many of the top agencies at some point in their career, the true knowledge base is shared among most of our competitors. State of the art tools for measurement and research are good differentiators as
long as we’re the only ones who have them. Unfortunately, a cutting-edge measurement model can be easily copied and will be constantly eclipsed by the next best tool or process.
“The only real value we provide our clients is our ideas. Therefore, the only way we can really differentiate ourselves is to offer our clients—and potential clients—better, more compelling, more exciting, more effective ideas than our competition. The only way we can achieve that is by cultivating and leveraging our creativity.”

Building a creative culture

But is creativity sustainable? Or does it too, like the knowledge Dome cites, reside in individuals?

Most of our experts believe that it is possible to build a creative culture at a firm, a process that involves several elements: the ability to attract the best and brightest people, to keep them, and to keep them energized; an organizational commitment to nurturing and encouraging creativity; and perhaps even a disciplined approach to ensure that creative standards are upheld on every piece of business, no matter how small or inherently dull.

Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School has identified three elements that are necessary to consistently produce high levels of creativity: expertise, a way to ‘pull and process’ good ideas, and highly motivated people.

People come first, but that doesn’t mean every agency should be out there competing for a handful of exceptional individuals who fit some preconceived notion of what “creative” is.

“From a recruiting standpoint, creativity is not one person, but the confluence of the ideas of many people that collectively set the stones in place,” says Coyne. “To be really creative, you should fill your agency with different types of people with different perspectives and experiences. It’s those experiences that shape perceptions of what’s impactful and meaningful, which can lead to very interesting creative.  Furthermore, a group consisting of various points of view can feed off of one another, and simply open doors for new thoughts.”

Doug Buemi, who is in charge of creative training and implementation at Cohn & Wolfe, agrees. His firm draws on the works of organization development trainer Martin Lowery and Colorado-based Emergenetics, which studies patterns of thinking and different types of creativity and has updated the traditional left-brain, right-brain classifications to incorporate modern cognitive science. The first element involves assessing each individual’s “thought preferences,” the way they absorb information and solve problems. The second involves taking that information to design groups of people who complement each other, putting them into a stimulating creative environment, and letting them brainstorm.

“When you put people with different kinds of creativity together you get opposing ideas, and opposing ideas give rise to fresh thinking, fresh ideas,” Buemi says. “Everyone is creative and we can prove it. They just may go about it differently.”

In fact, Karwoski argues, agencies need to pay special attention to recruiting people who don’t necessarily fit the traditional definition of creative.

“We have to be expert about the application of public relations strategies as they relate to our clients’ businesses,” he says, “which means we also have to understand our clients’ businesses and the environment in which they operate, so in addition to category knowledge you have to know something about overall business strategy, as well. Without a solid foundation you’re going to get surface level, ‘world’s biggest,’ publicity stunt type creative that’s focused on generating big numbers for media coverage.

“We need to either recruit people who know something about and are interested in business, or give people the training they need to become knowledgeable about business—both of these in addition to a solid public relations background. I’d like to see PR majors include some required business courses.”

Finding the right people is only half the challenge. Allowing them to use their creative talents to the maximum of their ability is an enormous challenge, and one that industry has not always risen to meet.

“Office hours, dress codes, checking in and out, limits on lunch hours, email regulations, an unspoken taboo on vacation time or flexible hours really accomplish nothing except to remind people at every turn that they aren’t valued or trusted enough to discipline themselves and make their own decisions,” says Dome. “We consistently undervalue—and undermine—our only real asset: our people.

“We recruit, we manage, we monitor, we evaluate, we utilize, we sell, we reward, but we do not care for our people. We do not nurture them. We do not support them. We talk about retention and advancement, instead of talking about fulfillment and freedom. Retention and advancement affect structure and cost. Fulfillment and freedom affect soul and mind. And soul and mind, the essence of our people, affect creativity.”

But building the kind of creative culture in which those people can thrive is particularly important in PR, where creativity is not a separate department but must be integrated into thinking at every level. 

“Unlike our ad agency brethren whose creative people are often labeled and compartmentalized, PR practitioners must include creativity in their repertoire to make even their daily communications efforts break through,” says Bill Fleishman, who is executive vice president of brand marketing at Boston-based Cone. “PR experts use an applied creative approach both when developing strategies and when taking a pitch out for a test drive to see if it resonates with the media or other third parties.”

“Segmenting people into the ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’ is against our heritage of creativity and may inadvertently stifle an idea that could be truly remarkable.”

“Creativity is a mindset, a state of being,” says Dome. “It comes from the thoughts, opinions, experiences and soul of the individuals that make up our agency. Creativity is not an inherent trait possessed by some and not others.  It’s not a department, or a title, or a discipline. You can’t buy creativity by recruiting a ‘creative’ or hiring creativity trainers, or appointing a creative director. You can’t take ‘creative people’ and dump them in the middle of your existing organization and say, ‘Go be creative.’

“What you can do—what we must do—is give people the freedom and the elements to access their own creativity and find their creative soul.

“Creativity comes from freedom. It comes from a cleansing of thought that enables a creative mind to spring forward. It comes from wide-open access to daring thoughts and improbable ideas, unfettered by worries and frustrations and barriers and politics and agendas.  Creativity cannot flourish in restricted minds.”

Dome suggests that the industry needs to change its entire mindset, to de-emphasize financial and re-emphasize fun.

“We need to change our agencies culturally so that we can be more creative,” says Dome. “We need to stop our obsession with financial management and cost control, and focus on truly servicing our clients by providing them with great ideas. And we need to have fun! It’s hard to have ideas and be creative when you’re not having fun. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like our industry isn’t as much fun as it used to be. We need to remember that fun has value because it ultimately translates to better ideas.”

Meanwhile, Richard French, president of Raleigh-based public relations and advertising agency French West Vaughan, puts the emphasis on risk.

“I think we need to encourage our people (and clients) to take risks and think ‘outside the box’ more. I think as an industry we employ inherently creative people and therefore are capable of coming up with great ideas, but often fall into the rut of regenerating programs that have worked previously so as to mitigate risk.

“Even the best conceived programs gradually lose effectiveness over time so agencies and clients that fall into the trap of continuing to do the same things over and over will inevitably see results wane over time and find themselves asking each other ‘what went wrong’ That’s often when you see accounts go into review and agencies moan about ‘ungrateful’ clients.”

Ketchum is one big agency that believes creativity can be institutionalized, and that a large agency can therefore be just as creative as a boutique that is dominated by a single creative leader.

“The most creative people are often voracious readers who also study human nature and pop culture,” says Strauss. To that end, Ketchum offices conduct a regular series of “Outside Inn” meetings, which offer speakers and exhibits and excursions designed to encourage fresh thinking. Since the program’s inception, Strauss says, the firm has heard from authors, comediennes, athletes and inspirational speakers.

Agencies also need to “communicate to our teams and clients what—specifically—our point of
view is on creativity, provide examples of what PR creativity looks like and celebrate it every time we see it,” says Gail Heimann of Weber Shandwick.

“Some agencies unroll their brainstorm rules and claim to live by the mantra that ‘there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm” and then squish the spirit of junior staff by ignoring a new pitch idea,” adds Coyne. “If people see you recognize and reward creativity, they will strive to be more creative.”

Heimann agrees: “We need to recruit creative thinkers with the same gusto with which we approach the uber-executors and we need to ensure that they have meaningful, satisfying positions within our organizations,” she says. “Most importantly, we need to reward superlative creativity as we do superlative account management.”

Process is not the enemy

But to institutionalize creativity, many believe, something more is needed: a creative process.

The belief that creativity is purely spontaneous is increasingly a thing of the past—as is the idea that too much process places constraints on creative thinking. There’s a growing recognition that the right process stimulates and channels creativity.

“There is a science of generativity that suggests four strategies that individuals and groups can employ: capturing (the ideas), surrounding (good creative environments), challenging (critical thinking for solving problems), and broadening (diverse repertoires breed creativity).

“Yes, ideas can be organic, especially as applied to individual creativity—as opposed to group or collaborative creativity. I’ve queried hundreds of PR people on this subject and have learned that virtually all ideas that they come up with as individuals happen outside the office. The cognitive environment is key so running, musing on the train or in the shower, biking, walking, and so on tend to get both lobes of the brain working.

“I think only one person has told me they get their best ideas at work, which is why we organize brainstorms to stimulate creativity at work. There are ways to conduct better brainstorms. Most of them evolve around stimulating the whole brain and getting people out of the vertical mindset brought on by the pressures of the day and a life lived in a cube.”

“In terms of a way to pull and process good ideas, perhaps the most valuable thing that agencies can give to people is a solid process to use and time,” says Karwoski. Too many agencies neglect creative process, or perhaps assume that smart people can generate creative ideas on demand. “Most people have never been trained on how to run a good brainstorm meeting—and by training I don’t mean a brown bag lunch regurgitation of a ‘how to’ article that someone read in Fast Company.

“There’s a right way and a bad way to run ideation sessions and learning the right way takes training, practice and time. Given a process for generating ideas, allowing enough time for formulating the right questions to be asking, an advance background information session, at least several hours to upwards of a few days for the idea generating process, then evaluating the ideas based on strategic criteria—all of these elements require time and the amount of time given to each one of these parts of the process will determine how good the ideas will be. The quality of ideas generated will be proportionate to the quality of time spent in the process.”

The problem is that a lot of the ways PR firms try to encourage creativity are little more than gimmicks, with no real relevance to the creative process.

“Having a room with toys and games in it like so many agencies have does not make an agency creative and it does not promote creativity,” says Karwoski. “It’s for client tours and recruiting new employees. Because truly creative agencies don’t need toys and games to be creative—they have people that are intrinsically motivated—people that generate new ideas because they love the process. You can teach idea generating techniques, but if you don’t have genuinely passionate people, you’re not going to have long-term, sustained creative output.”

So others remain skeptical. Says Heimann, “There are many so-called processes to get people to think differently. They are mostly effective at creating the perception of a ‘creative environment.’ But most—not all, but most—creative ideas are developed by people who have a natural inclination to bring thoughts from one area to the next (‘I saw something in a movie that made me think about something we could do for this headache medication...’), are intellectually curious—creative types read most media, see most movies, travel whenever and wherever they can, readily absorb what they read and experience and bring it to every assignment—and are emotionally ready and willing to put themselves ‘out there.’ 

“We can create a vibrant workplace that attracts and nurtures those people and we can help grow those in whom we see an inclination to think along these lines...but if it’s not there; it’s not there.”

So perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. 

“A process can be institutionalized such as the one we use at Cone,” says Fleishman. “But the goal of such a process is to remove barriers to truly creative thinking rather than to shape the idea itself.”

Adds Thomas: “Some people are obviously born with natural gifts for any type of endeavor, but we believe that everyone is capable of creative thought. We also think the creative process can always be improved. The key is tapping into each individual’s particular innovation style—visioning, exploring, experimenting, or modifying—and then providing tools, training and expectations.  This ensures everyone is able to find his or her own creative path and make a contribution.”

One thing everyone agrees on, however, is that agencies need to integrate the selling of creative ideas into the creative process.

“Once you have an idea that you want to bring forward to the client, make sure that you go through the same creative process on how to present and sell your idea,” Karwoski advices. ‘I’ve seen great ideas die because they weren’t presented or sold properly to the client. Ideas don’t sell themselves and agencies often spend all their time generating the idea and not enough time strategizing on how to sell it.”

Says Strauss, “It’s fair to say that every firm, at one time or another opts for a conservative approach when it feels like a risky one will jeopardize its business prospects.” So Ketchum makes it a practice to always provide three options to a client: “one that’s novel, new, untested, bold; one that’s traditional, but ideally creative in its own right; and one that’s extremely safe because it’s been done many times before.”

There has never been a more crucial time for public relations professionals to revitalize the creative process.

A recent Business Week cover story focused on the importance of creativity and suggested that the knowledge economy is now being replaced by the creativity economy. One of the magazine’s articles focused on Beth Comstock, the public relations exec now running marketing at GE, who is bringing in anthropologists, futurists and design gurus to shake up the GE culture.

Says Strauss: “Creativity in PR has the power, if harnessed, to lead the way in corporate America’s shift to a creativity economy. It’s heartening to read that GE’s Jeff Immelt is working to create a corporate culture where it’s OK to take risks—to bring in creativity consultants to shake things up, introduce new ways to meet unmet consumer needs.  His example will surely spur corporate followers, and this has to be good for creative PR practioners in the future.”

And most of our experts remain optimistic.

“Creativity is like your lost wallet,” says Coyne. “When you realize it isn’t there, you’ll panic and fear that you’ll never find it; but it always seems to turn up if you keep looking. Creativity and public relations have always gone hand-in-hand. Even the most basic PR programs need to apply some type of creativity.

“I believe the bar is continuously being raised by agencies on breakthrough creative, and that is what makes the business exciting. Fortunately, there is an unspoken race among agencies to produce the best programs and make the most buzz with everyone from consumers to clients to agency staff. That competitive spirit within our industry is what drives the develop of new ideas and thus continues the evolution of creative PR.”