Highway to Discomfort Zone: Farrah Storr on creativity

By Niki Wheeler,

If you’ve ever ‘done the PR’ for a media org, you’ll be working at a breakneck speed with comms, editorial and commercial teams to publicise scoops / salient features, special reports, supplement relaunches, partnerships, conferences, digital innovation or brand campaigns via non-competitive outlets, specialists and of course, social.

You’ll also be getting editors, columnists and correspondents onto the broadcast rosters for paper reviews and reactive pundit opps. Then there’s applying grey matter to the archive, diary or alum engagement opportunities that landmark anniversaries (of the successful titles) or VIP events present for the title of today.

So, as a flack, it’s fascinating to hear how editors innovate in a fragmented, multi-channel media landscape – exploring where this creativity can be directly applied to comms.

Fast forward to the first London Business Forum event of the season this September. Here, Farrah Storr, editor in chief of Elle Magazine (and previously Cosmopolitan, where she increased sales by an unprecedented 59%) took to a catwalk-shaped stage at the LSO to share her insights on how to build confidence and become fearless.

Storr told the audience to stop ‘coddling themselves away’ and to step into the ‘Discomfort Zone’ where ‘stress and challenge’ and ‘walking into obstacles’ can unlock ‘real flights of creativity’.

Providing examples of how lack of resource and time had fueled her own success (and that of Hollywood directors, impressionist painters and retailers), she talked about how ‘enforcing constraints and discomfort’ with working groups can help i.e. limiting the numbers of people who can work on an assigned project or cutting the length of time they’ve got to get it done – or both. Seemingly, the, creative outcomes these teams produced were judged on whether they cut the mustard commercially.

These ‘enforced constraints’ felt 100% relevant to PR. We’ve sometimes groaned when a prospect has given us less than a week rather than a month to produce a proposal, when a budget is slashed, a plan is needed in a heartbeat or when a team is too busy to work full tilt on a pitch – but could these perceived limits actually be doing us a favour?

Though cracking huge briefs can be a mountain to climb, requiring considerable thought and planning to crack – ‘small is beautiful’ or ‘short and sweet’ can also create huge buzz in a working environment.

Forget naval gazing, rubbing chins, thinking the ‘sky’s the limit’ and drawing on boards with time and people to spare. Could working with just one or two others – be they the boss or the work experience OR against the clock make us sharper? Is what we see as a constraint really an excuse to deliver a response that’s authentic (and even fun) vs over-engineered?

Having been born and raised professionally in entrepreneurial organisations, sat in the audience at The Creative Shootout and participated in the odd Ingenuity event, I can certainly vouch for when small teams on projects have produced awesome, clear thinking. I’ve also loved sitting down with a client or their team to face down a task at hand and ‘get shit done’.

Far from being a compromise, building out your first and often best idea (time) or keeping things simple (budget) often means you’re not over-complicating, watering down or hedging your bets on your response. You’re keeping things fresh, focusing on the brief and stepping away from decision by committee. This means acting resourcefully and bouncing stuff around with fewer colleagues or (vitally) the client ahead of the key presentation date.

In this climate of uncertainty, being able to move fast as the sands shift feels key to getting things over the line. If you can’t pitch the idea in less than a minute, how can a client sell it internally or a team get media or influencers to understand it?

So, while discomfort isn’t the cosiest word and there’s sometimes an element of ‘no pain no gain’ in doing great work, constraints can also be hugely energising in our business. You can’t beat the buzz of being truly accountable as you focus on a deadline.

Niki Wheeler is a London-based PR director

Photo by Eric Weber on Unsplash

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