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Richard Houghton: Don't just create, innovate

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richard houghtonThere is a big difference between creativity and true innovation, and PR agencies need to start delivering the latter in order to stand out from the crowd.

There is no doubt the PR agency sector is a creative one. The myriad of awards that our sector boasts contain numerous examples of highly creative campaigns. It is unusual to find a consultant who does not believe they have a creative spark, no matter how deep it is buried. But as an industry we seem to lack the ability to truly innovate, something that really is different to creativity.

By innovation I mean the development and commercialisation of a truly breakthrough service or offering that changes how the practice of PR is executed.

If you put ‘innovation in PR’ into Google the only agency on the first page of results is Lewis, whose website has a section on innovative techniques including augmented reality. Clearly this is not a scientific study but it got me thinking about why so few agencies hang their hats on their ability to innovate. Indeed, many of the services and campaigns cited as innovative are really just highly creative.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer has been one of the most successful corporate positioning campaigns our sector has seen in modern times, but at its heart is a flawlessly executed survey. A tried and tested tactic by any standard. What was new was that an agency committed to a piece of thought leadership and has executed it consistently for nearly a decade and a half.

On the other hand, you could argue that when Boston-based Shift Communications created the social press release in 2006 it was truly innovative. Not only had it not been done before, it moved the practice of media relations forward, bringing real value to journalists through harnessing digital and social media. More recently the launch of social media crisis simulation platform Polpeo gives clients and agencies the opportunity to live through and learn from a crisis on multiple social media platforms in a closed and secure environment. Something that was not possible before and that gives real, measurable value.

If you take a step back and look at the implications of failure to innovate for agencies and the sector as a whole, the picture is not pretty.

Are any of these scenarios familiar? You are on a ‘shortlist’ with seven other agencies. You’ve been asked to cut your fee but to do the same level of work. Clients want the strategy and planning thrown in for free. You’re on a roster but still have to pitch for small projects.

I’m guessing some or all of these are familiar to the majority of agency directors. The knock-on effects include lower margins, slow turnover growth and demotivated teams. All things that get in the way of an agency being a high value, premium priced, high margin business.

An agency that develops and commercialises innovative services, and has a reputation for doing so, is much better placed to have a one-on-one conversation with a prospect, charge a premium and attract the best available talent.

One of the reasons there seems to be little real innovation in the sector is that it is not an easy process. Chloe Martin, founder of the Innovation Collective, believes it is a lack of time and money that gets in the way of most companies innovating. She feels most teams believe they know the best way to do something and this lack of questioning stops broader thinking. Revisiting previous projects that have not worked is also an area that most companies forget, in Martin’s experience. Market conditions and dynamics may have changed, or a fresh pair of eyes may spot the changes necessary to allow the innovation to fly commercially.

Having a robust process to allow for innovation is also critical to success. What If!, one of the UK’s longest established innovation specialists, runs structured methodologies to get clients thinking outside of their normal patterns and looking at the opportunities in their business in a different light. It is within this structure that the real creative thought can take place and innovative ideas be identified, developed and grown to become revenue drivers.

Lastly, making sure you truly understand what your clients think about your innovative ideas ensures that they not only get launched but have a long and lasting impact on the commercial success and reputation of your agency. If Shift’s social media press release did not make journalists’ working lives better it would have disappeared without a trace and done nothing to position the agency as an expert in the changing world of media relations.

If your 2014 business plan doesn’t have a section covering innovation, product and service development then now is the time to add one. At worst it will give you time to look at the services you provide in a new light and at best identify an innovation that differentiates you from the crowd while delivering a great margin.

Richard Houghton is associate partner at Agency People.

This article first appeared on PR Week. Republish with the permission of PR Week

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