57% of PR firms report that earned media has become more important in the current economic climate, but more than half (53%) think that their agencies are not viewed as the best option by clients to lead earned-first creative ideas. 

These are some of the headline findings from the ninth edition of the Creativity in PR study, which explores the sector's creative evolution at a time of immense competitive pressure from other disciplines.

The 2023 Report, co-authored by PRovoke Media and Now Go Create, in partnership with FleishmanHillard, is based on a survey of more than 200 agency and in-house executives from across the world, which took place in the second and third quarters of last year.

This year's study brought a particular focus to the development of earned-first creative ideas, with only 47% of respondents believing that PR firms are viewed by clients as the best agency option to lead these. 

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“We seem to be at an inflection point for PR agencies, now in competition with ad and digital agencies for their very heartland in earned," said co-author and Now Go Create founder Claire Bridges. "Successful marketing campaigns have PR ‘baked-in’ — with creative concepts, wherever they originate, designed for earned media."

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Instead, the largest proportion (37%) find that clients are sourcing earned creative ideas from an open agency briefing. PR firms rank second (26%), narrowly ahead of ad agencies (24%).

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That finding is further reflected by the 51% who find advertising agencies as the biggest source of competition for earned-first creative and ideas. Integrated agency teams, furthermore, are largely deemed effective, by more than half (57%) of respondents.

FleishmanHillard head of global strategy and planning Lesley Backus believes the results reinforce that "PR is the most powerful discipline in the marketing mix."

"Earned has always been the go-to for building credibility, but companies and brands simply can’t compete today without the third-party endorsement and validation that earned provides," she said. "But we’ve got to hold our ground as the earned experts. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen PR ideas bolted on from ad agencies in the past year, and I get it – it’s the work everyone wants to be doing. But the truth is that there’s no one more qualified to do earned work than earned agencies. Inherent in our work are ideas with meaning that build a story, deepen a conversation, lift reputation. It’s in our DNA."

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A continued feature of the study, since it launched a decade ago, has been its efforts to examine whether PR firms are actually leading creative on behalf of their clients. Encouragingly, despite a more difficult economic climate, clients are still more likely to approach their PR firm for lead creative duties than they were 12 months ago, according to almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents.

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Also encouraging is the proportion of agency respondents who confirm that their firm has been designated as lead creative agency, which remains steady at 88%, even if that includes 63% who report it as an occasional occurrence.

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To better understand the factors in play, we asked how PR firms can secure lead creative duties. Storytelling and content creation emerge as the most important capabilities that can help PR firms lead earned creative, cited by 88% of respondents, ahead of influencer/thought leader relationships (67%), collaboration with owned, shared and paid media (63%), and media relations (53%).

This consensus offers important strategic guidance in terms of how public relations can secure lead creative duties. Furthermore, CMOs or marketing heads (50%) remain seen as the best type of client for this particular equation, with 23% preferring to engage the CCO first as a means of reaching the CMO. 

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When it comes to the barriers that PR firms face in their quest to become lead creative agency, there are some notable changes compared to last year. Client perception and expecations (70%) is cited as the most common barrier, followed by the PR industry’s creative reputation (59%), and client budgets or lack of resources (53%).

"AI, AR, and VR can turn imagination into reality and in this world of 'pure imagination,’ anything is possible and PR creatives should be thriving," says Bridges. "But some of 2023's most discussed, written about, and shared earned-media ‘activations' — like Maybelline's giant mascara, Jacquemus bags on wheels and Dubai’s giant Barbie — were all created by non-PR agencies. 53% of our respondents cite client budgets or lack of resources as a barrier but these kinds of unexpected virtual ideas are not limited budgets so perhaps this mindset needs challenging in this brave new world.

"Ahead of last year’s World Cup, Orange’s ’The Bleues’ support for the women’s game was another brilliant use of technology, this time VFX, to challenge bias and perceptions - core competencies for PR agencies.

"Since 88% of our respondents said that ‘storytelling and content creation’ are the two most important capabilities that can help PR firms lead earned creative, then continuing to develop these skills, as well as embracing emerging tech must be priorities for agencies wanting to lead the creative charge."

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"Year over year, respondents to the study have cited 'courage' as the most important driver in producing strong earned work," points out FleishmanHillard global ECD Joel Rodriguez. "Compared to 12 months ago, clients are more likely to approach PR agencies for creative work. But our ideas are not always winning. So, the onus is on us to take bigger swings. Within PR agencies, there’s always a healthy awareness of risk. This is only natural when our crisis colleagues sit right next to our creative ones. We must be fearless. We must be known as the agencies bringing our clients the most courageous, boldest ideas to drive business."

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This year's study also looks at the fate of creative ideas presented during the new business process. 50% of respondents say that the ideas they present in the pitch are only useful for winning the pitch, with 27% saying they are required to drive subsequent campaigns.

"With half of respondents admitting their pitch ideas are only useful for winning pitches, it's clear the process needs a makeover as it seems neither fair nor effective," said Bridges. "The survey results signal the need for change, questioning the sanity of the unpaid, time-consuming, and stressful process agencies endure."

"No creative team – or clients – want to see this work gathering dust in the pages of a slide deck, so how can we better live up to the promise of a pitch?" asks FleishmanHillard global ECD Ellie Tuck. "For agencies, finding a client who matches your creative ambition is vital. Over half of respondents believe engaging a CMO or head of marketing from the outset is the best way to secure buy-in on ideas, over and above a CCO or head of comms. But what you’re talking about is just as important as with whom you’re talking. Are you asking the right questions when the brief lands to get a sense of their appetite for earned creative work?"

"A good sign is their understanding of what earned ideas are expected to deliver for the business," continues Tuck. "For clients, it’s about scrutinizing the creative tasks you set at pitch. Avoid generic creative challenges that test an agency’s thinking. These are a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, focus on real and present business problems that are keeping you awake at night, and get agreement from other stakeholders on a response to a brief that you could all buy tomorrow."