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Picture: Harish Sharma/Pixabay
Picture: Harish Sharma/Pixabay

Something remarkable happened at Cannes this year. For the first time ever a PR agency, not a traditional agency, won the Grand Prix in the PR category.

While seemingly a rather benign moment, it speaks volumes about the types of creativity coming from PR firms, who are increasingly challenging established paradigms about who owns the idea.

For too long, PR firms have laboured under the myth that ad agencies hold the monopoly on bold, creative ideas. And it’s a myth held by many clients too, often dictating the kinds of budgets they can allocate to PR campaigns. The result is often a brief that sounds a lot like “just PR this idea for me”, which rarely leads to the most effective work. If something is to change, we must change our approach.

Creativity can come from anywhere, and to be a “creative professional” in any industry means applying a good idea within the constraints of a tight strategy, careful execution and a measurable business objective.

But an idea alone is not enough. It must be sellable and scalable too, and do what all resonant creative work does — tell a great story.

In industry publication Provoke’s most recent study of creativity in PR, storytelling and content creation were named as the single most important factors influencing whether a PR firm earned creative work, well ahead of both influencer relationships and media relations, which have historically been the mainstay of PR.

It points to something that today is the watershed of any idea — its ability to cut through the noise. And I would suggest that no other discipline does this as effectively as PR, which by nature has to earn its place in the hearts and minds of those we seek to influence in the most credible and authentic ways.

But good storytelling is hard. There’s a lot of noise competing for share of attention and share of voice, and most of us are so oversaturated and overstimulated by all the content out there that we’re a little jaded about what’s worthy of our screen time.

For any creative business, the challenge is getting people to care. So you try the novel and unexpected, you appeal to people’s better natures (or sometimes their worse ones), you activate their basic needs for love and community. In every approach, the ask is the same: can you create something relevant, resonant and relatable in a way that shapes perception and inspires action?

To me, PR has the key advantage here. Because where traditional creative ideas might augment brand love by making an ad and then paying to broadcast it, PR by default operates in an earned-first environment in which, if you don’t naturally spark interest or capture attention, it will simply be ignored. This is PR’s moment of truth: instead of paying for placement, you phone someone else and ask them to run your work for free.

No reputable publication runs a press release or an opinion editorial because you ask them nicely (or because you took them to lunch). They want to know it substantively shapes public discourse, feels relevant and raises the standards of journalism, even as it furthers a brand’s convening power. There is no reason these things can’t be achieved at once. 

But modern PR is also so much more than placing something in the news cycle. In today’s multiplatform environment, a message and a medium can be almost anything imaginable. And if something is newsworthy (shareable) enough, it’ll generate its own earned impact naturally.

For any creative business, the challenge is getting people to care

Why, then, do the most talked-about campaigns globally continue to be created by non-PR agencies? There is an essential mindset shift needed. We must show brands that their inherited perception that only “traditional” agencies own and execute big ideas is no longer true. As PR leaders, we must also step bravely and firmly into the creative freedoms we already have, knowing that when we believe in an idea enough, we can sell it.

To say budget is the only self-limiting factor feels like a cop out. The truth is we too often limit ourselves in the scope of our creative imagination. If PR firms are to convince brands of their creative value, we must believe this for ourselves too.

Let’s not forget that some of the most creative PR work right now is astonishingly simple and utilitarian — like 2024’s “Is that Heinz?” campaign, which foiled the many street vendors who refilled their empty Heinz bottles with cheap imitations. The solution? Find the exact shade Pantone Red of Heinz tomato sauce and print it on the bottle label so customers can verify if they’re falling victim to ketchup fraud.

PR brings with it nimble, relevant and often much quicker-to-market ideas. Creativity goes further; PR professionals are conditioned to innovate around angle, channel and audience in crafting impact. These are nothing short of superpowers, and we need to embrace them.

To own the change in PR we must embody it and deliberately state and restate our strategic and creative value to our client’s businesses, proving we do achieve the exceptional all on our own.

Indeed, the old formula of “PR this” as a standardised brief is dead. We operate in a world where a new blend of creativity is what will achieve much needed distinction.

PR is firmly positioned to lead the way as brands seek to navigate the noise around them, and it is a train that will not stop moving forward. I for one will focus on being in the driver’s seat. Shout out to the team at Golin for their incredible work, and congratulations on their well-deserved Grand Prix.

Chris Lazley is a partner & ECD at Razor PR.

The big take-out:

PR firms are increasingly challenging established paradigms about who owns the idea. They are well positioned to lead the way in a world where a new blend of creativity is what will achieve much needed distinction.

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