FEATURE: Unlocking creativity - Creativity can come from anywhere, but the best practitioners advocate a process with a mixture of discipline and structure. Suzan Leavy reports

It is probably true, if the latest television commercials for Barclays Bank are to be believed, that no one wants to hear about the ’small idea’.

It is probably true, if the latest television commercials for

Barclays Bank are to be believed, that no one wants to hear about the

’small idea’.

The ’big idea’ is the only one that counts - certainly as far as clients

are concerned.

However, creative thinkers in PR would do well to remember that the

instant ’big idea’ does not exist. According to Andy Green, managing

director of Green PR and author of the book Creativity in Public

Relations, this is just one of a number of myths about creativity.

Others include the idea that there is a distinct left or right hand side

of the brain controlling patterns of thinking, and that not all people

are creative.

’We have all got some creativity, but some people need more help in

unleashing their creative potential,’ says Green.

There are many different methods for unlocking creativity - from

deconstruction, to lateral thinking techniques and mind-mapping. And

although most agencies known for their creative campaigns have different

methods for helping the flow of ideas, the most common procedure has to

be brainstorming sessions, which seem to be used whatever discipline an

agency specialises in.

However, even though many companies employ this technique, brainstorming

can be a self-indulgent waste of time if it is done in the wrong way -

if there is no structure, or the right problem is not being tackled.

’A brainstorming session should not last longer than 25 minutes. If it

does, it usually means that people haven’t prepared for it properly or

haven’t structured and managed it properly,’ says Green.

In structured brainstorming there should also be a person assigned to

write all ideas down and a ’cheerleader’ to drive the group forward.

Another common trap to fall into is that of trying to evaluate the ideas

during the brainstorming session, rather than using it as a tool merely

to generate ideas.

’We use brainstorming sessions, not to come up with an answer by the

end, but to focus on objectives and issues,’ says Tony Langham, joint

managing director of financial services and corporate consultancy

Lansons Communications.

’Brainstorming works best if you have the session and then allow a gap

for people to carry on thinking and then come back. It is a process that

could be compared with songwriting.’

Mike Mathieson, managing director of Cake, believes in getting as many

different age ranges involved in brainstorming as possible, as they will

all offer a different view. He will willingly bring someone in from

outside the agency if they have specialist knowledge of the client’s

area of business.

He also believes that people can be more creative if the sessions are

not held in the office all of the time.

’We will sometimes have them in the pub, as it has got to be somewhere

comfortable. But we will always stop it in half an hour. You know pretty

soon if it is working or not,’ he says.

Rachel Bell, managing director of Shine Communications - the winner of

the Best New Consultancy at the 1999 PR Week awards - believes that

creating the right atmosphere for a brainstorming session is one of the

most important elements of creativity. Staff need to feel able to

express their ideas freely without fear of being laughed at or thought

of as stupid.

As well as having a special ’creative’ area in its offices, Shine

strives to foster a creative atmosphere throughout the agency.

’Junior people, in particular, can feel slightly threatened and

overwhelmed so we have to make sure that everyone feels equal, and

confident enough to express themselves,’ says Bell.

’Lack of confidence is one of the biggest stiflers, but it can often be

that what seems like one of the daftest comments at the time, brings out

an idea. You should also have a strong facilitator in the session to

move the group forward together,’ she adds. ’The right sort of

environment should be formed from the whole culture of the agency.

You can foster a creative culture through things such as the informality

of dress, to the design and style of the office and having music


But the creative process doesn’t just rest with the people working on

accounts, it is in having a broad cross-section of people, both

demographically and geographically, in the agency to feed the pool of


Shine also uses some of the techniques taught by Edward de Bono.

Regarded by many as the leading authority in the world in the field of

creative thinking and the direct teaching of thinking as a skill, the

methods used by Shine in brainstorming include lateral thinking skills

and the ’six thinking hats’.

The latter aims to get everyone who is involved in the brainstorming

session thinking about the same thing at the same time. For example the

’green’ hat is for generating ideas, while the ’black’ hat is for

filtering out those ideas which won’t work. All parties thinking about

the same subject at the same time discourages cluttered thoughts and

group members leaping from one subject to another.

Public affairs is an area which has had a reputation for being rather

grey, but Shandwick Public Affairs recently won extensive press coverage

with its Winnie the pig campaign in Westminster. It was lobbying on

behalf of the National Pig Association and the Meat and Livestock

Commission for financial support for struggling pig farmers, which it

achieved. Chief executive Colin Byrne says proper brainstorming is one

of the first things taught to new recruits.

’We take a very pro-active approach and draw on our experience in the

political arena. But in public affairs, creativity has a bottom line

value - you either win an election or you lose it,’ he says.

’We review best practice by speaking to our offices around the world to

see what we can learn from how they are doing things. We are constantly

playing back work to our staff and giving case studies to those who may

not have worked on a particular account.

’Shandwick’s How to Brainstorm Effectively guidelines are given to all

new staff, and we always make sure that we have a non-hierarchical

brainstorming as I really believe that you can get good ideas from

graduate trainees,’ he says.

Shine and Shandwick Public Affairs are among those who like to take an

egalitarian approach to creativity. But Mark Borkowski, one of the PR

industry’s leading creative thinkers, believes that not all people

within an agency will be creative and therefore not everyone should be

involved in the creative process.

He also firmly believes that it is not essential for staff who work on

an account to be involved with the creative process for that brief.

’In any company, staff are like a bag of golf clubs and you use

different people’s skills for different things. I don’t agree that

people can be forced to be creative and there are very few frustrated

creatives as ideas will bubble up anyway,’ he says.

’Brainstorming is very valuable but also overrated, and there is no

substitute for just spending time thinking. The majority of our creative

work is done with a three-person process. It is good to have an odd

number as it can become antagonistic and is never even handed.

’Big teams don’t work. I like getting people involved who are totally

unrelated to the account as they ask more questions. You can be too

close to a problem.’

Indeed, Borkowski became so frustrated by people coming to him for ideas

that he founded a ’virtual’ sister business called Think Inc, headed by

former journalist Peter Freedman. The company can be used by other PR

agencies and employs 30 to 40 freelance ’thinkers’ who are e-mailed

details of a brief and come up with ideas for PR activity. Ideas are

then discussed either through a conference call or when the thinkers

meet up in person.

’What creates value and adds value is the quality of ideas. PR people

are often expected to give away their ideas for free and just get paid

for implementing them,’ says Borkowski.

Over at Shandwick’s corporate practice group, chief executive Chris

Genasi presides over a culture where there are no traditional

brainstorming sessions and many working practices in terms of creativity

are borrowed from advertising.

Creative facilitators, trained in de Bono techniques for creative and

lateral thinking, work on ideas for new business and existing


’Nobody who works on the business would be involved in this process

because we need people to look at a problem with a new perspective and a

fresh pair of eyes,’ says Genasi.

’We also play the ’what ten ideas would get us fired?’ game which

loosens people’s minds up and you get some really good ideas from


Shandwick’s corporate practice also uses ’creative pairs’. This is

common in advertising and pairs two people who work and get on well


Deconstruction is another method to come up with a campaign which is

also commonly used by advertising agencies and becoming more popular in

PR. This is where the PR practitioner tries to get inside the mind of

the client and what they are trying to achieve. The PRO does this by

pretending to be one of the target audience, and by asking very obvious

questions a clearer picture of the customer emerges.

In terms of an agency’s clients contributing to the creative process,

opinion appears to be divided.

’If you are going to be really creative, you must challenge the

traditional ways of doing PR, and in those circumstances managing a

client is a prime concern as they have to be persuaded to throw away

traditional thinking,’ says Borkowski.

’Manipulating clients and managing their aspirations runs against being

creative. Involving the client is a very liberating process but that can

push out the middle man, which is essentially what the PR person has


Mathieson says that difficulties can arise when a client is


’Sometimes you can come up with loads of ideas but with some clients you

should just give them one idea. It can be quite weak of agencies to

throw too many ideas at a client as it can mean that their approach

becomes diluted anyway,’ he says. ’It is often best to have one route

that you truly believe in.’

However, according to Andy Green: ’Clients know their products and

markets better than consultants. So if there is a potential opportunity

to get a client involved, it saves a lot of time as, if both sides

understand straight away what the agency is trying to do creatively, it

is much more likely that the client will buy into it.’

Another area to be wary of is being too creative, and not reflecting the

values of the client’s brand. ’Good agencies should still be able to do

creative work while showing a clear understanding of the brand and its

objectives,’ says Langham.

Green agrees: ’You can sometimes be over elaborate or over extreme. A

lot of the industry is guilty of unnecessary creativity where they will

do something wacky and way out just for the sake of it.’

However, Byrne adds that creativity in public affairs cannot go over the

top. ’Public affairs is a brass-tacks, down-to-earth sort of business

that is focused on outcomes, so we tend not to go into the realms of

indulging our fantasies. We focus on what works and what can be

adapted,’ he says.

No matter what technique is used to encourage ideas, all of the

consultancies agreed that the creative process cannot start too early in

a campaign.

It is also more likely to be productive if it has some sort of

structure, and relevance to the client is kept at the forefront of

people’s minds throughout.


Youth PR specialist Cake has handled PR for mineral water brand Evian

since 1997. In August 1999 Evian was a sponsor at outdoor dance festival

Creamfields. Held on the last weekend of August, Creamfields attracts

45,000 clubbers to a disused airfield in Liverpool.

Evian wanted to make sure that the sponsorship would achieve five


The brief was: to make an event out of the Evian’s sponsorship that

showcased the ’aspirational nature’ of the brand; to improve the event

experience for visitors; to raise awareness of the product’s

availability on site; to communicate Evian’s properties, for example,

rehydration; and to generate PR coverage.

The team from Cake held a brainstorm of account staff and their events

team and eventually came up with an idea that would satisfy all five


They agreed to build a swimming pool at Creamfields.

Once the client and the Creamfields organisers were happy, the Cake team

then had to decide what the pool was going to look like and how to build

media interest, apart from the fact that Evian had built a swimming


The PR team and events team worked together to make sure that the end

objectives were continuing to be met and the same time trying to come up

with a branded swimming pool that would make a really good picture.

Eventually they decide on palm trees, parasols, furniture, poolside

waitresses and a dwarf in a tuxedo to hand out towels to bathers.

The team then came up with the idea that the pool should be filled with

Evian, with water shipped from the French Alps and delivered the day

before the festival. They sold the story in to the media that festival

visitors could swim in Evian. Coverage before the event ensured that

visitors turned up with bikinis and swimming trunks on the day.

Media coverage included pieces in MixMag, the Sun, the Observer, Muzik

and the Face, and Evian says sales on site were up on other events that



Smirnoff used Borkowski Press and PR in December 1999 to launch its

premium packaged spirit Smirnoff Ice to a target market of 18- to

24-year-old men.

The team at Borkoswki knew that they had to be creative to make the

drink stand out in a crowded market. Informal discussions around a table

established what their target market was interested in - drinking,

clubbing, football, girls - but it still took the team almost six weeks

to come up with a hook for the campaign.

Inspiration came from a diary piece in Total Football magazine about

Greenland applying to become a member of Fifa - world football’s

governing body.

’It seemed extraordinary that this place with a population of just

55,000 would want to do this. It’s such a small country and covered with

ice and yet they are mad about football and the English game in

particular,’ says Borkowski director Sally Homer.

The Borkowski team decided to hold a five-a-side football tournament in

Ilulissatt, Greenland in December and call it the Smirnoff Ice Cup.

Several journalists and a photographer were taken to Greenland to watch

and a team from Maxim were invited to take part. Ex-players Stan Bowles,

Mark Hateley and Gary Gillespie were part of a team,which included other

journalists. The host nation fielded a team of native Innuits, who were

all football internationals.

Greenland’s Football Association was consulted and became involved. The

tournament winners were the team from Greenland who beat both Maxim and

the former professionals.

All of the teams wore Smirnoff Ice-branded kits and the tournament

achieved pictorial and editorial coverage in a number of titles.

’This shows that successful ideas can come from something ordinary,’

says Homer.’

including Maxim, The Observer, the Sun, the Evening Standard, The

Scotsman ,Time Out and Total Football.

’This campaign shows that ideas can come from something very ordinary,’

says Homer.’You just have to be really focused on the logisitics of

making an idea a reality.’

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