It is probably true, if the latest television commercials for
Barclays Bank are to be believed, that no one wants to hear about the
The ’big idea’ is the only one that counts - certainly as far as clients
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
’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
’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
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.
GIVING EVIAN A BIGGER SLICE OF CREAMFIELDS
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
FOOTBALL MAKES AN ICE FEATURE FOR SMIRNOFF
Smirnoff used Borkowski Press and PR in December 1999 to launch its
premium packaged spirit Smirnoff Ice to a target market of 18- to
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
’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,’
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.’