Digital & Social Media

Getting Clear on Creative


Creative has been a buzzword in PR for the past five years. As such, we’ve seen more creative-focused titles cropping up at shops large and small. But if you look at all the folks at an agency with “Creative” in their title, you would probably find a wide range of different skills, experience and capabilities.

This means that any discussion about “creative” or “creatives” really needs to begin with a definition of terms. And while some firms have much clearer lines of demarcation between design, content, production, creative, etc., there still seems to be a fair degree of confusion that stems from the widespread – and poorly defined – term “creative.”

But before debating what or who should be deemed a “Creative,” the first step is really separating them by their core function so that we are talking about a common set of roles. Not that these different forms of creative should not work together, they should. And not that folks who sit in one area should be precluded from contributing to another. But by and large, they are not interchangeable just because they have the word “creative” in their title. And as leaders develop staffing strategies, it is best to consider where to place someone, what to expect from them as an output, and what capabilities they are really acquiring.

Here are some observations that are guiding this thinking (full disclosure: I’m an ex-ad agency person). Frankly, these thoughts are probably not shared by all at my firm, so there’s clearly room for debate.


Too often, design creative that is more executional is confused with idea-driven or conceptually grounded creative.

This important set of skills (graphic design, layout, look/feel, color palette, brand guidelines, etc.) and the capabilities it represents should probably be managed separately, as the skills, talent, production issues and priorities are different. Here there is a much clearer and discernable process, timeline and cost structure associated with the deliverable. It generally does not require an insight or an integrated ideation process, and it can be executed by a single creative designer overseen by a project manager. We would call this capability Design with a capital D. It’s output is generally a visual object of some kind.


Too often creative is confused with production.

“I need a video that looks like x, y and z.” This request requires a range of creative skills to develop a script and concept, which is often visual in nature and which needs to be produced ultimately (location, permit, lighting, editing, sound, color correction, etc.) and possibly distributed. This visual content – whether a two-minute how-to video or a video for a corporate meeting – is best managed by a production department or producer. Like Design above, this is Production with a capital P. In the world of PR, this is a need that most often is associated with content, and the output is most often a visual piece (and typically video).


While ideas fuel everything we do, the ideas that make for great work are special.

This is probably the trickiest area and the one in which creativity is probably most valuable. While everyone who works in the marketing communications field is capable of developing ideas that can shape and guide client recommendations, the pursuit of the Big Idea is what we are talking about. Something that rises above a number of tactics, that is bigger than any one expression – however creative those expressions are. The pursuit of the Big Idea and who/how teams get there is probably the most contentious topic as it relates to the issue of Creative. What is important to understand here is what skills, experience and inclination are best suited to this task.

As my colleague Stefan Gerard explores in his companion piece to this, PR/communication programs are often not defined by an anchor visual expression. More often, a Big Idea takes the form of a platform idea that can inspire a series of inter-related activities, some of which may be visual or not. And given the channel and medium-agnostic tendency of PR, the Big Idea must inspire work/activity across a wide range of channels – some owned, some paid, some shared and some earned.

This means that big C “Creative Thinking” in this area requires a range of different types of folks from a range of different backgrounds. Some of these folks are likely to have Creative titles, from digital, advertising and social agencies, as well as folks from other strategic and executional disciplines such as media relations, experiential marketing, etc. The bottom line is that the pursuit of the Big Idea in the context of integrated marketing communication is bigger than any one discipline. What they all have in common is the ability to collaborate around a single idea that guides and shapes a wide range of expressions.