Head to Head: Should PR lead on the creative idea?

In this series, Mumbrella invites senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues and talking points. This week, CampaignLab's Andy Scales and Clemenger BBDO's Nick Zonnios go head to head on whether PR or creative should lead on campaign ideas.

Media agency ad spend has had its “worst year in living memory” and marketing budgets are set to continue shrinking, leaving earned media as an attractive avenue for brands to get their messages out there.

The earned media experts are PR professionals, but should they start to lead on creative campaigns?

Andy Scales, director of CampaignLab, says PR ideas give the best results to integrated campaigns, and PR agencies shouldn’t sell themselves short on getting involved in the process.

Head of Clemenger PR, Nick Zonnios, believes that the creative idea is best left to the creatives as a PR’s focus is often elsewhere. He agrees, however, that PR needs a seat at the campaign table.

Andy Scales, director of CampaignLab, argues ‘Yes’:

Absolutely yes. If you can earn media then you can pay for it. But it doesn’t always work the other way around.

Anyone that’s worked in comms for a while will agree there’s nothing worse than when a client says “Our media agency said this campaign is really PR-able”. Did they now…

At CampaignLab, we see earned media as the barometer for testing a successful integrated campaign. It’s the first step, and it’s an essential one in the campaign execution. If you know that the idea is going to get past the editor of a major news desk then that’s half the battle. From there you can build out all the assets and rollout the campaign across the channels you own or buy.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great campaigns and ideas that perform really well across one platform e.g. a TVC or OOH, and this may well be by design. But the best ones all have a strong earned media element to them. So if brands are looking for big integrated ideas and campaigns which will generate earned media coverage and organic social sharing, having PR lead the ideation is going to deliver the best results.

What’s more, in the current environment, with shrinking media spend and brands looking for greater ROI, there has never been a better time for PR to step up to the plate and lead.

In my opinion however, PR agencies in general suffer from an inferiority complex. It wasn’t long ago when people were discussing if PR agencies should be involved in social media or content.

That seems ridiculous today, but the reality is that the way people communicate and consume news is changing at an incredible rate and the best agencies are the ones embracing it. They’re leveraging new technologies, and jumping on emerging trends and platforms to engage their audience. And by doing so they are tearing up the prehistoric rulebook on what a PR agency should or shouldn’t do.

Should PR agencies lead the creative idea? Absolutely. And those that don’t will be left behind.

Nick Zonnios, head of Clemenger PR, argues ‘No’: 

I think it’s important up-front to differentiate between ‘traditional’ creative ideas, and creative ideas designed primarily to generate earned media outcomes, as they’re two very different things with vastly different outputs and measures of success.

I’m likely to get skewered for this hot take, but I don’t believe that PR should lead on the creative idea. We should have a seat at the table and provide our expertise to help make the work better, but the responsibility of leading a creative idea should remain with creative agencies.

Creative agencies are built and structured in a way that’s designed for very specific purposes – to identify creative opportunities, to develop those opportunities into brilliant creative ideas and to produce those ideas across a myriad of different channels that see the core idea used to satisfy the significant challenges that clients are trying to overcome through marketing and advertising.

Every day, PR folk – particularly those in agency land – have to juggle a wide range of responsibilities. We could be defining comms strategy for a client, managing account service and client management responsibilities, identifying opportunities for clients to engage in media or on social in response to a key issue, dealing with journalists, influencers or working with partners to create content, to name a few.

It’s a lot. But it’s what makes the job so great. While I’d love PR to lead on the creative idea, the rationalist in me can’t wrap my head around how we could think that’s a good idea, when there are departments full of people who have trained and work exclusively in the development of ideas.

As a discipline, we should be working harder to foster greater working relationships with creatives, whether it be by developing a better working rhythm with our client’s creative agency partners, by employing trained strategists and creatives in PR agencies, or as we’ve done at Clemenger BBDO, by building a PR agency that can take advantage of the incredible resources we have in-house.

I hope that as an industry we continue seeing creativity as being crucial to the success of our businesses, and that one day we can get to a point where our creativity can be comparable to the output coming from creative agencies, but until then, I firmly believe that creative leadership should live with creative agencies.

  • As told to Zoe Wilkinson. If you are a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email zoew@mumbrella.com.au

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