Get Creative or Die Trying: The Rise and Rise of Creative Directors in PR

The number of PR agencies looking to grow their creative teams has risen twelve-fold over the last few years.  Back in 2008 we might have been asked to find a Creative Director once or twice a year: fast forward to 2013 and we’re getting more than one brief a month. So what’s driving this demand for defined creative roles and what does it mean for PR agencies and their clients?  We’ve been talking to Creative Directors at some of the UK’s leading PR agencies to find out.



PR or Advertising, Who’s the Creative Daddy Now?

There are two fundamental reasons why the PR industry is having to sharpen its creative skills:Pull-Quotes-Alex-Wood

Reason #1: Because the inter-agency playing field is levelling.  Ad agencies are encroaching on PR territory as they seek to extract more value through earned-media ideas.  In other words, a brilliant above the line ad campaign is no longer enough. Agencies of all disciplines are expected to engage target audiences across multiple media platforms and that’s where the principles of earned media come in. Traditionally, earned (as opposed to bought) media has been PR’s domain but that’s changing and PR agencies need to recognise this shift.

Reason #2: An increasingly cluttered media environment which constantly bombards us with content means top flight creativity is essential to generate ideas that are strong enough to cut-through the noise.

PR agencies are perfectly placed to seize this opportunity,” says Alex Wood, Creative Director at Ogilvy PR, “but they need to formalise their creative function to get the same respect as ad agencies in this regard. A big creative concept can come from any discipline – especially as clients are looking for more cost-effective comms and ideas derived from earned media principles.”

Joe Sinclair, Creative Director at Citizen agrees, “Often the best ideas, the ones that generate conversation currency, come from an earned media perspective, which should be our heartland.  But we need to make sure the big ideas are being generated by PR agencies and that we’re not just being brought in to deliver ideas thought up by ad agencies.”

According to Andy Bellass, Creative Director at Splendid, “It’s no longer simply “What’s the above the line strategy?”, but how do we engage people in a live, digital, social and increasingly in an earned or PR context. This is being driven, to a large extent, by how media is consumed. PR is increasingly at the heart of the big idea, rather than simply amplifying ad concepts.”

Hope and Glory’s Creative Director, Gavin Lewis thinks that the tide is turning. “The big ideas and central comms platforms are increasingly coming from PR. We are rightly sitting at the top table and agencies need to be armed with the resource, wisdom and of course the creativity to capitalise on these changes,” he said.

So that’s settled then.  But how does a Creative Director help make this happen?


Specialist Creatives: What Exactly Do They Do?

All of our contributors agreed that creativity should not be a standalone function but an intrinsic part of everyone’s role.  Andy Bellass has a neat way of defining his job: “My view is simple.  A good creative director nurtures creativity in all those in the business.  A bad one pisses people off by claiming to be the only creative person.” Good point well made.

Pull-Quotes---Andy-BellassThe good news is that PR agencies are generally packed with creative types as it’s an integral part of the job. Good writing skills and thinking up strategically smart ideas are essential, core skills for most account handlers.  What a Creative Director does is take that innate creativity and help shape and focus it across every type of output – from new business to ongoing campaigns and programmes and even day-to-day client contact.

Alex Wood thinks this commitment to creativity is key if we are to compete with other marketing disciplines, “As well as developing 360 degree creative concepts, daily quality control around client content is key.  PR agencies should be creating stunning content on par with other agencies, and specialist creatives can bring an understanding of how to do this in-house without an over-reliance on external suppliers.”

Andy Bellass thinks there are two distinct skills that a CD brings to the table, “First they need a great understanding of what drives the media agenda and, ultimately, real world conversations.  Secondly they need to be aware of what will knit a campaign together. For a campaign to be integrated it all has to work together: the event needs to create content that feeds social that drives engagement that pushes to dot com.”

“Everyone in PR should be creative, everyone should be able to write and recognise good ideas and good content,” says Joe Sinclair. “My role as Creative Director is to be on hand and on point for the account teams, making sure creativity and consumer insight is at the heart of everything we do.”


A Day in the Life…

There’s no such thing as a typical day, but there are some common themes to the life of a Creative Director (take it as read that coffee features quite heavily..).Pull-Quotes-Joe-Sinclair

  • Sharing and educating – making sure everyone is aware of cultural trends and what people are talking about
  • Running brainstorms and creative ideation sessions across the agency
  • Directing content shoots and creation
  • Meeting clients to discuss creative planning, sell creative work and pitch to new prospects
  • Working with great clients who throw you great problems that you work with a great team to solve (all before lunch)
  • Developing creative strategy
  • Acting as quality control on creative content from across the agency


Show Me the Money

Specialist creative time is part of the package, it’s not billed separately as clients expect and demand quality creative as an integral part of the service.  Joe Sinclair thinks clients have a right to expect creativity, “It shouldn’t be separate or an added extra.  Creativity spans every single touchpoint and every single thing we do as an agency.”

However, some believe that creative services could also become a revenue stream as there is increasing demand from clients for specialist creative input.  Whether or not their time is billed separately or as part of a team rate, good creative teams should pay for themselves.

“Creatives should, ultimately, improve the bottom line,” says Alex Wood.  “Since a specialist creative function was set up our win rate has increased – most recently adding to our client list in a pitch process where the client purposefully focussed on creative strategy and big brand ideas.”



Creative Talent of the Future

The Creative Directors we spoke to have varied backgrounds including prestigious advertising, digital, PR and integrated agencies. However, they are all planning to ‘home-grow’ talent from now on – if they aren’t already.

Andy Bellass has been nurturing creative talent for years, “There’s no great plan. We just assess the talent we have and nurture those who are creatively minded in certain directions, whether it’s digital content, design, event creation or more broad-based comms strategy.”

“You can absolutely train up a PR account handler to be creative director.  PRs are intrinsically creative.  Whereas ad agencies have separate teams of copywriters, art directors etc, PRs are already doing all of those things as part of their role,” said Joe Sinclair.

So there we are.  If you want to stop ad agencies encroaching on PR turf and develop successful campaigns that slice through the noise like a hot knife through butter, you need to:

  1. Hire a really good Creative Director
  2. Recognise the latent creativity in your teams (or even in yourself) and nurture it to help develop those world-beating creative ideas.

Then, I imagine, it’s simply a case of sitting back and waiting for the accolades to roll in…. No?


So, You Want to be ‘A Creative’?

The Top Five Qualities in a PR Agency Creative are….

  • Be nosey – we’re talking voyeur-level interest in other people, because you need to know what makes them tick, what’s hot, what’s not and how to get people talking about your campaign
  • Understand how different channels work together – many is the great idea that failed because of poor execution and a lack of integration – you need to understand the demands of the different channels and how to shape your story to suit
  • Be culturally hungry and well-informed – the acceptable face of voyeurism: be well-read, plugged-in, hoovering up news, views and information with your finger on the pulse, all at the same time.  Media whores, your time has come.
  • Be an ideas person – you need to come up with the crazy ideas that will get the red tops knocking on your door AND know how to structure those ideas to deliver results across multiple media platforms (or hire someone who can do the second bit for you)
  • Have a sense of humour – there’s nothing that saps creative energy quite like a miserable person so if you’re of the grumpy persuasion this probably isn’t the role for you….


Top Tips for Becoming a Creative Candidate

  • Broaden your creative mind – be aware of brands, trends, cultures. Plug into what the ATL industry is doing and start thinking about how your work can transcend industry boundaries
  • Start a PR Creatives Social – start with social media and then move on to meeting up once a month to share ideas, you could invite speakers to present their latest work to inspire you
  • Talk to your line manager and ask if you can increase your focus on creativity, perhaps include some training or a secondment to an ad agency to see how their creative teams work
  • Get on the new business team. If ever there is a moment in the PR day when creativity comes to the fore, it’s working on those pitches. So put yourself out there!
  • If you are looking for a new role and you want to focus on creativity, tailor your cv to draw out the creative aspects of your work and find a recruitment agency that specialises in those kind of roles (we know one…)

Are you a creative or PR person looking for a new job? Check out our PR Jobs board or get in touch.

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