Cannes 2013: Is PR entering a new phase of creative recognition?


By David Blecken
The PR Grand Prix once again went to an advertising agency, but Dave Senay, president and CEO, Fleishman Hillard, believes PR agencies have realised what it takes to be ‘creative’.

Do you believe the PR industry has caught up with advertising in terms of putting forward world-class creative work in the time since you chaired the jury two years ago?

Every year since the inception of the PR awards at Cannes, entries have increased around 30 per cent per year. Fortunately, PR agencies have kept up, and with the convergence of all these disciplines, why not? It’s becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between PR and other disciplines. This year, the major agencies did show up. But there was also strong representation from the minors from places you wouldn’t expect.

When you see the kinds of idea that win in terms of marketing PR entries, they are usually high impact, short-term and capture the imagination. It’s important to remember that these are creativity awards—not creativity and effectiveness awards. We [the PR industry] are like steady rain; most of our campaigns are steady rather than being a cloudburst. These are not the kind of campaigns that are being awarded here.

In the marketing PR category there is such an abundance of short-term, high impact ideas that advertising agencies are good at. On the corporate side, it’s hard to be creative. Corporate activity does not reward risk-taking. But what we’re learning is to think about styling entries for awards from the very beginning. I don’t know if it’s a main aim, but certainly a parallel effort, and it’s a good thing as long as we don’t forfeit the substance.
So have we reached a tipping point?

In the fifth year of the [PR] awards, the PR industry is really starting to respond in a positive way. By and large campaigns that win here are relatively tactical and I think many of them have a hard time justifying themselves as built on strategic insight, but I think analytics are being used to good effect. So it could be a turning point in that regard.

We’re seeing a maturation of the industry in a space it was not born into. This is a global showcase for the ad industry; they have a 55-year head start on us. PR firms are creative, but their creativity is sustainable. They may not have lightning strikes, but lightning strikes come and go. That’s not a criticism—that’s just the nature of the awards.

Do you think the rise of content marketing offers PR new scope for creativity? Or has the industry been too enthusiastic in its rush to embrace content?

We’ve been content creators from the beginning. There is less and less distinction between paid and earned media. In the end, anything that’s any good will be shared. That’s the excitement today—brands can create something that’s only a small percentage brand-specific but 100 per cent relevant to the brand’s users.

That’s the new frontier: creating content that resonates with key audiences. The other phenomenon is brands as publishers. All that audiences care about is whether something is personal, relevant, timely, useful and credible.

Where does PR fit into all this and how is the model changing?

That’s the great debate. We’ve got the sensibilities as to how to create engagement. [At FleishmanHillard] we’ve made big bets. We’ve invested in analytics, planners, creative directors and film directors. We now have a chance to bring brand and reputation together like never before.

The creative directors we hire are refugees. They’re tired of one-dimensional approaches to communications and want everything to work together. We’re not trying to look like an ad agency. Instead, we want to become a combination of these different ways of thinking.

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