‘PRs don’t value ideas highly enough.’ Discuss…

At an Influence roundtable, eight PR professionals took a stand against giving ideas away for free.

After a year-long hiatus, in April 2018 Kanye West returned to Twitter.

“As a creative your ideas are your strongest form of currency. You have to protect your ability to create at all costs. Try to avoid any contractual situation where you are held back from your ideas,” he wrote.

The rapper’s tweets may frequently be mocked, but he’s not alone in thinking that those in the creative industries are being shortchanged.

In May, experts gathered at CIPR’s headquarters in Holborn to formally acknowledge the difficulty of establishing the value of ideas.

COMMERCIALISING CREATIVITY

A bold statement opened the Influence roundtable: “Public relations practitioners don’t value ideas highly enough.” It came from CIPR CEO Alastair McCapra, who set the issue in the context of social trends. “All of the government’s economic strategies are grounded in creativity – there is recognition within high-level policy thinking that creativity is essential – yet we have not worked out what to do about that in commercial terms.”

In 2018, financial rewards for PR work still come upon activation – and there is growing discontent among practitioners that idea generation is not rewarded. To say it irks Johnny Pitt, the founder of creative agency Launch, would be an understatement: “People want ideas but they are not prepared to pay for the initial investment, even though without a good idea a campaign doesn’t go anywhere.”

A NEW WAY OF WORKING

To address this, Pitt and the team at Launch, along with PR professor Jon White, have produced ‘Creative Value’, a set of guidelines to help both clients and PR professionals manage expectations and fees for the work that goes into each project.

The guidelines include a recommended pitch process called ‘Creative Locks’; ‘Creative Filters’, or scorecards, that help all parties to assess the value of an idea; and ways to keep track of development costs.

Barbara Watson, a director at Launch who worked on the guidelines, explained at the roundtable: “It’s a good value proposition. It changes the playing field in a positive way. The agencies and creatives put their best work forward because they are being paid to do it.”

The guidelines work for both sides too. “We’ve suggested that, as part of the process, there should be a development fee that is refunded if the project doesn’t meet the creative objectives. So there’s skin in the game for both sides,” added Pitt.

BILL LIKE A LAWYER?

Historically, the abstract nature of creative work has caused a headache for the finance department (and anyone else who likes to know exactly what they’re paying for), as most professions only bill for tangible work.

Magnus Boyd, a partner at law firm Schillings, who specialises in corporate reputation risk and data security, raised a laugh when he admitted his own time is billed in six-minute slots, including phone calls and paperwork. He linked reluctance to pay for ideas to the law: “Intellectual property law recognises that you can’t protect an idea, but only the expression of an idea. It is protected once it is put into a format – that could be a video, a script or a brilliant model. It’s about getting from the abstract to the tangible as quickly as possible.”

This means PR teams should use resources efficiently in the planning stages of a pitch. The erroneous expectation that extensive groundwork should be done has come from the advertising industry, which relies on big-value payoffs on completion of a project, explained Maxine Horn, CEO of Creative Barcode, where agencies can register and protect their pitch proposals. “A client company might invite a dozen agencies to pitch for a job worth £25,000 and expect each of those 12 agencies to expend at least £5,000 of time-based fees for a chance to win a low-value account,” she said.

PR needs to push for clearer briefs, with higher chances of success and a return on the time invested, agreed the roundtable guests. Practitioners need transparency from potential clients.

“We’ve been working on streamlining the process,” said Bieneosa Ebite, deputy head of corporate communications at Centrica. “We need to hold ourselves accountable in the creative process.”

Feedback needs to mean something too, as Horn said: “Agencies put their heart and soul into the work, and often only get a one-line email, saying: ‘Sorry, this time you’ve been unsuccessful.’ That’s not feedback and does not respect the value of the time invested.”

THE STREAMLINED PITCH

Both Pitt and Watson have seen smart clients reduce the number of firms invited to pitch – and get far better results. Some clients even go so far as to limit the process to three agencies, each getting 20 minutes before the panel; the best idea on the day wins.

But evaluation of work continues to be an issue – both in pitches and in PR in general – which can lead to buy-in problems for in-house teams looking to bring in extra expertise.

It’s a problem that Tina Coates, director of communication at Metro Bank, is all too familiar with: “It’s an internal challenge, especially in financial services, of persuading other business areas that you have made the difference.

We’ve recently seen an increase in brand awareness – which is a fantastic result given that we have no advertising or sponsorship – but we have to prove to the business the role that comms has played in delivering that. It’s not a given.

“In some businesses, there’s often a fundamental disbelief that PR makes a difference unless there’s a crisis or an issue.”

ADVENTUROUS IN THE BOARDROOM

Rachael Clamp, head of marketing for public services, defence and security at PA Consulting, highlighted a conflict, however. The drive towards professionalism and the desire to be better represented in the boardroom may have led to creativity being under-referenced and undervalued by practitioners.

“We’ve been trying so hard over the past 20 years to get a seat at the boardroom table that we’ve taken away some of the words like ‘creativity’, as those can have accountants and the like panicking about how we can quantify and bill for it,” she said.

As McCapra concluded, the industry’s attitude must be that of creative evangelist: “It can’t be that either we are creative or we are in the boardroom. It has to be that, by this creative thinking, we have something meaningful and commercial to contribute to the boardroom.”


This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q3 2018.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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