Killing our little darlings

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WE’s Nick Woods argues that whether you lead a PR agency, are part of an agency team or are a client, there is a new crop of PR agencies that prioritise insight, original thinking and adventure.

NIck Woods

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On April Fool’s Day we ‘launched’ PRindr – a tongue-in-cheek fake app designed to allow journalists to swipe stories left or right depending on whether they wanted more info or not.

Light, silly fun for April Fool’s Day. But also a pretty nice symbol for how PR agencies are changing. 

Well, how some of us are changing. For us, an app being the right answer is just one of a seemingly endless list of possible distribution methods for bringing to life an original idea –it might equally be an ad campaign, a website, a trade show, an activation in a chain of wholesalers, a reality TV show, a song, a poem, the world’s first Vine-based soap opera or a flying robot. 

However an idea is dressed, the best current agencies have genuine creative abilities rather than relying on the old-school thinking that PR creativity is a ‘different type’ of creativity.

This old type of agency thinks the need to create news that is relevant to brand and media, which is regular and conversational, is very different to the one-off setpiece plays of a big ad campaign. 

They’ll say advertising is all about boiling things down while PR is all about explaining eloquently, however long it takes.

They think everyone in a PR agency can and should do everything – planning, creative development and delivery, account handling. 

They think that their agency ‘has a type’ and employ more and more of the same: often these are white, middle-class, redbrick university-educated people, a succession of Mini-Mes who all look at the world in roughly the same way and aren’t interested in really developing their abilities beyond the most token of gestures.

The trouble is, they often can’t explain a strategy with the simple clarity a senior client might expect, and they certainly can’t root said strategy in any meaningful data.

As for developing creative, many PR agencies struggle to generate meaningful insights, struggle to understand how to define a genuinely big idea, struggle to present their work in a way that excites, struggle to think conceptually, struggle to think big and struggle to get beyond the jargon of ‘improving brainstorm facilitation techniques’ when it comes to talent development.

Waggener Edstrom PR dinosaurs
The sands are constantly shifting, but only some PR agencies seem capable of handling the changes. Meanwhile, PR dinosaurs are thankfully dying out

All of this is why the vast majority of chief marketing officers raise their eyebrows and sigh when asked about PR agency creativity. 

And why PR agencies struggle at Cannes. 

And why the big annual consumer award at a well-known industry awards do recently went to a one-off photocall. 

It is linked to the fact that only about 10 per cent of PR agencies employ anything vaguely resembling a creative director.

Unfortunately, some clients still want faster horses rather than cars, to paraphrase Henry Ford – but while some agencies will make a profit this year and next servicing them, this is not a long-term play. 

The agencies you want to join, hire or lead are those that recognise today that media relations is one of the things we do, not ‘the thing’. It must be today, because if you wait until you reach the realisation that a car and not a faster horse is needed, it will be too late.

The good agencies value data, big and small, and are desperate to increase their planning function because they recognise planners’ abilities to uncover actual insight.

Equally, they are developing the creative abilities of their leadership and teams. 

They are reading Dave Trott, John Hegarty, Steve Harrison and Michael Michalko, attending Hyper Island, being trained by Punchdrunk and generally pushing the agency’s creative output ever harder. They have leaders who are facilitating, not blocking.

They are building a more creative, collaborative physical environment; one that feels alive, fresh and contemporary; one that evolves continually and one that involves their own people, rather than the somewhat tired approach of hiring a local art school to provide wall content.

They are hiring app builders and web designers and data analysts ahead of English graduates, and are prioritising apprenticeships over graduate trainee schemes.

They are developing their own labs – places where agency staff can learn, play and (shock horror) innovate.

They are knocking internal barriers down to fulfil their aims, removing the short-sighted limitations of their own profit-and-loss structures and overriding the desire to keep the agency establishment happy with the desire to get everything right.

And guess what? They are where the good talent is shifting.

This increasing specialism is an almost inevitable future. Today we are in the foothills. 

And while it is clearly terrifying some (“but I do sell-ins”), I think that we’ll see an acceleration in the next two to three years, during which time I predict at least half the top 20 agencies in the UK will restructure along what might loosely be termed ‘ad agency lines’.

In turn, this will lead to talent being better used. To bigger, better, more effective campaigns that stretch far beyond media relations. To winning the PR categories at awards. To pitching against ad agencies for the really big budgets, and winning more of these pitches.

So, if you’re thinking of changing PR agency any time soon, whether employee or client, here are my top five questions to ask a prospective agency’s leadership:

1. What have you done to improve the creative abilities of your team and is there a creative specialist in your senior team?

2. How do you root your thinking in data?

3. What do you do to ensure you’re not just continually recruiting more of the same people?

4. How do you innovate your agency’s thinking and abilities?

5. Which agencies and people has your business collaborated with in the past 12 months?

The agency you want will have a senior creative specialist, will have access to planning tools, will have people from a wide variety of backgrounds, will clearly be able to describe how it maintains innovation and will work with interesting partners.

These agencies are the ones that have killed the ‘sweetie, darling’ mentality, will deliver genuine original thinking and will unlock some adventure for your brand.

Nick Woods

Creative director
Waggener Edstrom UK

Tower House
Fourth Floor
10 Southampton Street

T: 020 7632 3800