Consumer PR: What's the big idea?

Creativity treehouses, magician's techniques and specialist input. Steve Hemsley looks at sources of creativity in consumer PR. ITV's Lorraine Kelly Live might not spring to mind as the most thought-provoking television around, but Asda PR manager Ed Watson was watching the show as news of the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles was announced, and a creative spark fired. It turned out not only to be a column-inch grabber but a business success as well.

His suggestion was to produce a replica of Camilla's platinum engagement ring and price it at £19. The idea was designed primarily to generate publicity for Asda, but the brainwave also raised awareness of the supermarket's jewellery. Sales increased by more than 70 per cent on the same time last year, with the 2,500 'Camilla rings' selling out within days.

Watson's idea - a mixture of luck and good timing - is a prime example of PR 'creativity'. But while ad-land more famously lives and dies by it, creativity is something that PROs are less renowned for.

Few PR agencies have the dedicated 'creative head' or equivalent role (see box) and are sometimes suspected of churning out the same type of ideas and stunts year after year. In-house PROs working on one product or corporate brand are constantly under pressure to be innovative, while agency teams must avoid getting stale, especially if they have been working with the same client for many years. Creativity should fuel the PR process, but what fuels creativity and how can PROs remain inspired?

Better brainstorming

For most companies the traditional brainstorming session is the favoured tool for generating ideas, but some think this leaves a lot to be desired. Nick Fitzherbert worked in PR for 20 years but now runs courses on fostering creativity through his company, Magic Management.

It may sound bizarre, but he uses the psychology of magic to improve business performance. Fitzherbert believes creativity is a difficult issue for PROs who have chosen to specialise, and that by using certain tricks of the magician's trade, they can engage their audience more effectively and open their minds to challenging creative ideas.

He says PROs need to be taught how to contribute to brainstorming sessions, especially in-house teams that have to think solely about one brand. 'You need rules and must define problems, opportunities and objectives,' he says. 'You must also separate the generation of ideas from the analysis, which means not picking apart ideas as you go along.'

One Fitzherbert client is the agency Mantra PR, where managing director Lawrence Dore says this type of training effectively demonstrates to staff and clients that the agency is actively investing in creativity.

He says: 'We have improved our brainstorming so that everyone now chips in. No one sits back and feels intimidated because they might not consider themselves an ideas person.'

Another agency placing more emphasis on creativity is Shine PR, which has built a 'creativity treehouse' in its office.

This is actually a roof space full of sofas, games, CDs and other toys designed to stimulate thinking. There is also a library where the most popular books this month are It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and dollars ellebrity: My Angling and Tangling with Famous People by George Lois.

Recipes for success

'Ideas are the currency for success and every month we send a creativity email around the office talking about ideas that have been presented and asking for feedback,' says account director Lawrence Collis. 'We also have a creative development fund which people can dip into to visit an exhibition or a concert where they feel they might get inspiration.'

One of the greatest challenges for any PRO is to be creative with a staid product. Bite Communications handles the Iomega brand that produces zip storage products for computer users. To promote its range, Bite devised the Iomega Mega Force and employed 2000AD cartoonist Jason Brashill to create a unique superhero character for each product (see opposite). At the launch, journalists were shown how the Mega Force would defeat arch-enemy Dr Dataloss.

But while PROs' ability to be creative obviously benefits agencies and clients in different ways, there is a debate over the degree to which creativity can be taught.

Andy Green runs the Creativity@work consultancy and operates a workshop for the CIPR. He says many PROs just need to be shown how to unleash their creativity: 'Some PROs say they lack the confidence and have tended to bluff it, sometimes for years. I help people analyse the core problem because this should act as a creative jump-lead to speak ideas.'

Indicative of the fact that PROs sometimes need help with creativity is the existence of a new company set up to sell just that. Arlo Guthrie, founder of Guthrie Communications, formed www.consulttheguru.com earlier this year. Companies pay for a team of five consultants from different offline agencies to devise PR ideas. He is aiming the business at small agencies and companies that have a limited in-house PR facility or none at all.

'Creativity is not so much a skill as a personality trait and is more nature than nurture,' he argues. 'Life experiences are the lifeblood of creativity, but can also be a mixed blessing and restrict a person's freedom of thought.'

GEM Motoring Assist used the service after struggling on a limited PR budget to get media coverage after it rebranded from the rather old-fashioned moniker of the Guild of Experienced Motorists. GEM chief executive David Williams says: 'I did not want a PR company to come in and change everything and I was sceptical about using a company that knew nothing about my business.

'But I got back a creative strategy with three ideas which had not occurred to me before. The ideas are confidential but are simple enough to be implemented by me and my part-time PRO.'

Creativity is all about devising something that did not exist before to achieve a stated objective. For PROs to succeed they need to have the confidence to open their minds and not be afraid to think unconventionally.

Even if clients do not like the ideas, it should at least be fun generating them.

DEDICATED TO IDEAS

Eddie Buckley - head of creative at Lexis PR

Lexis PR is one of the few agencies with a specialist creative team, led by Eddie Buckley. He joined the creative department four years ago from Jackie Cooper PR to work on the Barclays Premiership account, and was promoted to his current role last summer.

He oversees six specialists who operate in a purpose-built creative area complete with a large circular table which Buckley insists helps to stimulate ideas. Buckley's role is to ensure the team provides Lexis' clients with ideas that will differentiate them from their rivals.

'I can give clients some tough creative advice because we are experts in what will and will not work. We know when something innovative cannot be compromised,' he says.

Buckley says others in the agency are not excluded from the creative process. In fact, every six months he insists that each PRO comes up with at least three ideas in addition to the ones their clients have signed off. 'It is my job to know that as an agency we are being as creative as we can be and checking we have gone that extra mile when being original.'

'I am a sounding board for other people's thinking because good ideas can get lost when there is so much demand on everyone's time. I ensure the creative team takes these seeds and makes them grow.'

But what makes a creative person and how does Buckley remain creative?

'You have to be curious and interested in what is going on around you. It is important to be questioning and keep asking why something is happening and what would happen if it was done differently. I demand that from my team.'

STAYING FRESH

When a client and agency have been working together for a long time, the pressure on the PR team to remain creative can increase. There will always be a temptation for a marketing manager to look elsewhere if they feel the relationship with the agency is becoming tired.

Good Relations has worked with sweetener brand Canderel for more than 15 years and with British Meat for eight. Director Helen Newey says the secret is to never take a client for granted. 'You need to talk to your clients about what they like and don't like,' she says. 'If you know a brand inside out you are better placed to explain how a creative idea fits into its marketing strategy for that year.'

Helen Kershaw, marketing manager at Canderel, says clients also have a responsibility to ensure PROs do not run out of ideas. 'We are moving a brand forward all the time and can get to the stage where PROs are stuck in one way of thinking,' she says. 'We rebrief Good Relations once a year on where the brand is in the market, latest consumer trends and how we want the PR campaign to link with that.'

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