The typical process for evaluating PR agencies puts a premium on creativity. In many cases, the “big idea” ends up tilting the decision toward the eventual winner.
What constitutes a “big idea?”
It meets one or more of the following criteria
- Deviates from the status quo
- Aligns with brand-building effort
- Client hadn’t thought of it
- Calls for chutzpah or even a dash of craziness
- Would cause the industry to pay attention. Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys?”
Notice I didn’t include a bullet point that touches on the execution of the “big idea.” I would venture to say that not even 20 percent of the creativity that prompted the client to select its PR agency ever takes the leap from the grease board to making it happen.
Everyone in the industry seems to accept the disconnect.
The Holmes Report conducted a survey on the topic of PR creativity with the No. 1 key finding being – drum roll please – “A lack of big ideas.”
I don’t think that quite captures the issue. If you aggregated all the creative thinking that goes into one year’s worth of PR agency reviews, the brilliance would hurt your brain.
As for why this brilliance isn’t translated into action, it’s quasi revealing to look at the question from the Holmes survey “What stops you or your company from being creative?”
In short, most companies don’t fund creativity (time = money).
With that said, we’ve made a couple changes that have shifted the trajectory of our client relationships and bolstered creativity.
During the new-biz process, we communicate our unfiltered point of view on what it’s going to take for the “client” to win and the funding needed to drive such a campaign. Some companies disagree with our approach or find the thinking too radical. Others won’t allocate the necessary budget. In these cases, they don’t choose us.
I would argue that the system works. We’re not in the news release business.
On the other hand, when a company does choose us, it’s for the right reasons. They’re preconditioned for a more creative approach to communications.
We’re also encouraging our account teams to experiment. Creativity doesn’t always have to come wrapped with a big-idea bow. It’s about honing a mentality that’s continually searching for a better way down to the tactics. Recent work that leverages the BuzzFeed Community is just one example of this.
Stepping back for a moment, the most creative breakthroughs in business typically come from the R&D function in an established company or venture-funded startups. The appetite for risk varies in corporate R&D, but as a general rule of thumb, venture capitalists strive to succeed 20 percent of the time. They will plough $5M investments into 10 companies knowing $40M will scatter to the winds. They can do that because the two winners will deliver back-up-the-Brinks-truck returns.
It’s this type of risk taking – a mandate to swing for the fences knowing the likely scenario is a strike out – that collectively generates great “creative.”
This is where the PR industry needs to head.
How do we create a model that cultivates a similar dynamic?
I don’t think it’s going to come from clients.
It certainly won’t come from venture capitalists (though a boy can dream).
We’re going to need to figure out this “big idea” on our own.
Note: A Newsweek cover story framed what they called “The Creativity Crisis” back in 2010. It’s still a good read if you’re interested in the science behind creativity.