Plenty of room for creativity in ‘traditional PR’

Two regional creative leaders argue that the industry needs to move away from the perception that corporate PR and creative-led PR exist in siloes.


Yet again, Cannes Lions is being dominated by work from ad agencies—even in PR categories. Top prizes in the PR Lions were gained by the likes of FCB, McCann, DDB, Droga5 and Grey while Herd MSL, LLYC, Current Global, Beach Mode (BCW) and Action Russia were the only PR agencies credited for award-winning ideas. This year’s PR Lions span two years of work and attracted 1,725 entries yet only 10 per cent of those entries (165) made the shortlist.

This begs the question: Why is creative work from PR agencies being ignored?

In Asia, building full-fledged creative teams is not an entirely new habit for PR agencies. Many are equipped with chief creative officers right down to entry-level copywriters and designers. But the main issue, according to two creative experts, seems to stem from an inward and client-side perception of creativity in PR. 

“Our clients are wanting to be blown away with highly creative work but as an industry we play it too safe and forget we are being paid to look from the outside in and offer a new perspective,” Lee Devine, APAC creative director at Archetype, told PRWeek Asia. “Teams drift towards the middle and start to regulate themselves and their ideas.”

This ‘self-regulation’ Devine speaks of is perhaps intrinsic to the way PR networks are often operated and managed—with caution, layers of approval, and rigid processes. And this could be getting in the way of creative ideas being tabled and subsequently executed or being submitted to awards.

This ‘caution’ isn’t surprising for an industry like PR which traditionally offers consultancy in areas such as crisis comms and reputation management, and this results in creative ideas being reviewed through those lenses. This is contrary to, say, ad agencies whose work are often shouted from the rooftops.

Devine said another main challenge he faces as a creative in PR is that his team is expected to give ideas away for free instead of placing value in creativity to solve real business challenges. “Smart clients get this and are willing to put their dollars behind creative,” he said. 

Kenny Yap, general manager at Red Havas, told PRWeek Asia that all clients want creative work from their agencies regardless of disciplines. “In fact, creative work by PR consultancies is often developed and evaluated upon media and consumer newsworthiness, influencer marketing touch points and even risk of any potential issues management. This allows the client to achieve even more value when they roll-out their marketing communication initiatives on different platforms,” he said. 

Despite that, a challenge Yap faces is budgets. Often, PR consultancies and their services are deemed as a cost-saving alternative, generating free editorial media compared to costly advertising and media investments. 

“Clients with such mindsets aren’t able to fully-leverage the consulting and brand reputation expertise of the consultancy,” said Yap.

There also seems to be an existing mindset where traditional PR and creative-led PR exist in siloes, especially when it comes to corporate PR briefs.

“Creative communication is required across all sectors from B2C, B2B to healthcare. In fact, we see lots of whitespace opportunities for clients in these sectors. Sadly, stakeholders often think that only B2C sectors have room for creativity and fun,” said Yap. 

Devine concurs: “Corporate or consumer, it doesn’t matter. Every audience wants to be inspired, educated or entertained and creativity is the key to that. When everyone is sounding the same, we need to do things differently.”

He added that ‘traditional PR’ doesn’t have to be viewed as a practise of the past or requiring agency teams to be following a formalised structure. 

“Even the term ‘traditional’ instantly makes PR feel like it’s something from the past and is to be swiftly overtaken by some obscure future. Why is ‘traditional PR’ not thought of as creative? I’d argue good ‘traditional’ is creative, where it needs to be. Or it’s just not good PR,” he said. 

In an ecosystem where PR agencies are increasingly having to compete with creative agencies in pitches, Devine said that creativity in PR should be taken seriously and may have added benefits to clients.

“PR agencies are investing in quality creative talent and can offer everything the 4As can,” he said. “Comms agencies have a head start at times because they typically sit very close to the C-suite, so they understand the real challenges or opportunities facing the business. Therefore, they come back with strategic-led creative responses that captures audience interest, influences and inspires them to take action.”

Yap, however, is of the opinion that simply integrating PR with creative is not adequate. “While it depends on the type of industry the PR consultancy is in, most PR consultancies would have had to make the integrated shift. However, in my opinion, the integration of PR and creative services are not sufficient in today’s market. Clients are seeking performance marketing and digital automation solutions,” he said. 

He added that data and digital solutions will be an integral part of the comms industry as evidenced by AI and dynamic creative optimisation. “New roles may potentially be introduced in PR consultancies such as anthropologists and semioticians to train and skill the emotion intelligence aspects of these new technology,” he said.

Devine said that creativity in PR will only be increasingly regarded as a precious commodity, as “those in PR and comms are traditionally not very good at translating a message into creative communications to break through the noise.”

“In an age where audiences are bombarded with messages at every turn, creating a communications campaign without insight-led creative is a bit like trying to deliver a sales pitch in the middle of a crowded nightclub,” he said.

“PR agencies need to continue investing in creative teams and elevate that part of their business, or they’ll fall into obscurity and be overtaken by those that get the power of creativity.”

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