Breaking Boundaries: The Bright Future of PR

June 28, 2018

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“Ideas no longer care about the artificial boundaries we put around them.” If that’s really true, then the future for PR is bright.

On the fourth day of Cannes, the man from Another Agency stood up on the stage during the presentation of the Cannes Lions and told us that ‘Ideas no longer care about the artificial boundaries that we put around them.’ Wise words, but they came in the context of a ceremony where FleishmanHillard was one of a literal handful of PR agencies who were recipients of an award. So it struck me that whilst ideas might not care about artificial boundaries, clients, awards organisers and judging panels still might.

What’s truly exciting is that PR agencies are changing. We’re organizing differently to put clients first, and certainly in London, the FH team is putting all of our ‘in’ into integrated campaigning to generate simple, brilliant concepts rooted in undeniable insight. Insight that can proudly stand side by side with the work of advertising planners and our peers elsewhere in the creativity food chain.

But we need to keep fighting the good fight if we’re to continue to gain traction and recognition for the role of PR. I had been down to write a very different piece following Cannes. But when I heard this line during the awards, it put everything else I had seen and heard during the week, into stark relief. If ideas are to truly thrive beyond boundaries; to be dreamt up anywhere by anyone in any agency – and for that agency to be a PR agency – then we have to accept that the ideas that stand the test of time, come from one place; people. We have to continue to invest in understanding what people are telling us; about their lives, their fears and their hope and dreams. Our clients will win and win big if they put themselves at the heart of them, and how we make that sing – the campaigns we develop – they will truly transcend boundaries of practice, agency and network. They’ll just be the best ideas. Full stop.

So, from the frontline of Cannes, here are the three things that remind us that audience insight is one of the most powerful assets we have at our disposal:

  1. The human condition. The ideas that broke down barriers, were human at their heart. They took the time to really understand what mattered to people. And accepted that it might be very different to what mattered to KOLs or decision-makers. No pharma company wants to hear that only 18% of patients ever talk about the drugs, but it’s true. But they are talking about whether or not they can get pregnant and that might just be the unexpected route in to your patient’s lives. Sometimes listening means that you have to actively challenged received wisdom to genuinely affect change that sparks the germ of a world-changing campaign. Listening to 1000 MS patients challenged the neurologists telling MS patients that cognitive issues are a result of the disease when the damage was already done. Because listening to the patients proved that for over half, cognitive damage started before their diagnosis, which led to a change in how that indicator was perceived. It might not feel comfortable challenging the status quo but in a world where there are no new ideas, the best ideas might come from the other side of the held viewpoint.
  2. There are people behind data. We’re all obsessed with data collection – how do we get it, what does it tell us and what more do we need? But we need to remember that human beings are responsible for data. And that the behaviour we see can be just as instructive at telling us what we’re not seeing as much as what we are seeing. Take Ikea. Their brand proposition is to ‘Make the everyday better’. Yet the data told them that their image was defined on social media by meatballs eaten in store, and not their homewares. So instead of fighting to build an association with their homewares as they see them, they used their children’s products to build an association that worked intuitively with what parents wanted and used the data to support what parents wanted – not what the brand needed. Parents want their kids to play. And to play simply and creatively. Enter the IKEA flatpacked box. And an app where a parents can snap the box, and IKEA will give options of what the cardboard can be turned into, with sellotape, scissors and a black marker. From forts to dolls houses to cardboard swords, IKEA used its data to put the power of simple play into the hands of parents – via the purchase of a flatpacked item.
  3. People can change our clients. If you’re armed with genuine insight into what your customers want from you, and you accept that your brand has a problem, there are very few places that a business can go other than to move towards the light of change. Johnson &Johnson’s (client) CMO Alison Lewis talked powerfully of the realization that their yellow baby shampoo and their pink baby lotion – two of the most iconic products on the babycare shelf – were fundamentally at odds with what the modern parent wanted from babycare. No colour and no scent. They had no choice but to change their line. No choice but to accept that science wasn’t enough. Listening to customers had to take centre-stage and damn what had gone before. Inspiring stuff.

So, don’t be afraid to ask real people – the patients, consumers, employees – the questions that no one is asking them. To defy boundaries, we have to defy norms. It might just be that the question no one ever asked is the one that will spark the best idea of them all. We need to keep doing this if we’re to really hold the industry’s feet to the fire and prove that ideas don’t care about artificial boundaries. And PR doesn’t care about them either.