'If we had ad agency budgets we'd knock their socks off' - talking creativity with Pegasus' Stuart Hehir

In our latest interview with a leading UK PR creative, former PRCA Creative Group chair Nick Woods talks to Stuart Hehir, creative director at Pegasus.

Stuart Hehir: 'If you get the budget, you can ensure the craft'
Stuart Hehir: 'If you get the budget, you can ensure the craft'

'Too many red-brick university educated think-a-likes’… it’s a familiar refrain to anyone who’s been around the block once or twice.

But while most of his peers were learning how to think-a-like at provincial universities, Stuart Hehir was, in his own words, "driving round the country in a 22ft former library van, playing bass in a dub-funk-dance outfit". "We recorded our own album and vowed we wouldn’t sell-out to The Man, as we played the uni circuit and a few festivals."

For anyone interested in contemporary British PR and specifically the evolution of the creative role, Stuart is a must-meet.

He has been creative director at Pegasus, the Brighton-based integrated creative agency, for over 11 years and been a key cog in its development and growth from regional consumer PR shop to winning multiple ‘agency of the year’ titles and one of the UK’s leading healthcare comms brands of the last 10 years. Since UDG Healthcare bought the agency three years ago, it has seemingly gone to even further new heights and now bills approximately £12m per year.

Most of the creatives I’ve spoken to for this series sit pretty squarely in consumer/brand PR. What’s the difference creatively working in healthcare PR?

In reality, a good deal of what we do is consumer/brand comms, just around a healthy message, so I guess you can argue it’s similar in lots of ways, but in some areas very different. The first difference, I guess, is what’s at stake; often our campaigns are designed to have quite a profound impact on peoples lives, helping people make changes of different sizes to be more healthy. This means we need to strive even harder to develop creative without vanity and which is born from the most solid of insights and strategy.

And the second?

In some areas, the restrictions. Clearly there are regulatory restrictions around pharma, where we rightly can’t communicate directly with a patient around prescriptions medicines, for instance. I’m not sure this actually makes our job harder creatively, however, just different, as clearly we can still raise awareness of issues and direct people to their GP. Social media also changed everything – suddenly patients could talk to each other and are having lots of other conversations beyond HCPs. And sometimes brand guidelines and brand police are far more restrictive.

Tell me about the creative team at Pegasus.

There was just one person when we began, and we now have more than twenty.

Graphic designers, copy-writers, script-writers, an art director, head of design, videographers, developers and animators. Some are more focused on core design, some more conceptual, thinking of the 'big idea' that sits above channel. The core team is supported through peaks and troughs by a network of freelancers that Brighton is obviously brilliant for. I think we’re now billing around £2.5m solely through the creative team.

And your role?

I guess I’m now responsible overall for our creative reputation. I do lots of new business and am usually there at the start of most responses – anchoring a creative lead alongside the strategic and client leads . It’s really then about being involved if I need to be or helping to break down the barriers to allow my team to do what it does best. I’ll obviously try to have an overview of most responses, but I also trust the talent within my team to deliver.

Do you think ad agencies are better at creative than PR?

Not sure about that. There are a lot of pretty awful ads out there, they just get seen because of the spend behind them. The budgets they get mean they get to activate ‘properly’ but I’m not sure they’re ‘more creative’. Bad creative PR doesn’t really exist in the same way – if it’s shit it won’t get seen because it needs to earn its attention. I think if most decent PR agencies had ad agency budgets we’d knock their socks off. We are in the era of earned and the better ad agencies all know it.

Ok, but do you think our craft is weaker than theirs?

Yes, often. We fall down on craft, but craft is budget. If you get the budget, you can ensure the craft. Pfizer did a 22-minute documentary about living with cancer, four or five patients, all interesting characters, filmed over the same period by a documentary team and it was beautifully shot. Good budget. Good craft.

The silos are going now anyway, right? You do advertising too… ?

We do the full piece. We’re absolutely an integrated agency these days. For the Samaritans campaign we ran around suicide and railways we won distinct awards for strategy, planning, media relations, social media, digital and brand film. That’s proper integration. One central idea executed brilliantly across all channels. That’s at the heart of what we do.

I understand Pegasus has a fairly unique partner from academia, and that it helps creative?

Interesting, isn’t it? So, we think academic behaviour-change theory can impact creative for the better. We’ve developed our framework, CHANGE with UCL, built around their COM-B methodology. It’s built around the idea that in order to change behaviour, people have to be capable, have the motivation and have the opportunity to change. If we look at behaviour now, and at behaviour we want and understand what the barriers to that change are, we can help people more.

The model has nine different interventions that can be applied better to overcome particular barriers.

On something like the Samaritans’ suicide/railways brief [one of the iterations, below, was named Campaign of the Year at the Campaigns for Good Awards 2018 from PRWeek, Campaign and Third Sector] we identified enablement, persuasion and role modeling as three key interventions. So in the copy on our posters and the script to the brand film, we used real conversations, we role-modeled. The nine interventions aren’t the answer, but they’re a great start-point creatively.

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