PR Insider: New Category, New Challenge, New Creativity

Maggie O'Neill
Maggie O'Neill

Breaking into a new category is not always easy in the world of communications. So much of what we do is predicated on our category expertise, and so often we rely on that experience to inform our creative thinking for current and future clients. But what do you do when challenged with a new category? And what lessons in creativity can we all learn from starting anew?

Peppercomm is always on the hunt for ways to deliver creativity to our clients and prospects.  From listening first, last and always to the Innovation Mill and our agency Dream Day to our new Account Planning team, we are constantly challenging ourselves to do better and think differently. This spring, that creativity mantra was put to the test as we made our pitch to become the AOR for MINI USA.

This was not the first time we looked at a new category and wondered what the over/under was on breaking in. In our history, clients like Steelcase and Whirlpool hired us without prior relevant experience, each time due to a new creative approach that came with some risk and reward.

As part of our own MINI creative challenge, we flipped our business development process on its head; a tumultuous moment, but one that is informing our creative process moving forward. First we had to start from scratch, something we ultimately welcomed as it allowed us to think fresh and not bring along pre-conceived notions from previous successes or failures. Second, we had to be non-traditional because we knew that approaching this in a traditional way would never beat out the folks with the category know-how. And third, we looked beyond our four walls, engaging with experts and different thinkers to help inject new ideas into our strategy.

Four key takeaways for us, and for any team looking to break into a new category—or even inject creativity into a current one—include:

> Invite others to the party.
This applies to new or current category thinking. So often we rely on ourselves to drive creativity, but sometimes an outside perspective is just what we need to up the ante. Consider asking an industry analyst or expert to join the brainstorming, invite a comedian or a journalist to sit in on crafting the client story, and bring in your financial gurus to brainstorm how to reach Beyoncé. The more diverse your thinking is, the more you will get out of the creative process. Just make sure to have a NDA in hand if you are inviting new thinkers to a private party.

> Leave the baggage at the door.
We’ve all done it. Gone into a brainstorm with our inside voices telling us “the client will never do it “ or “it’s been done before.” This thinking only hampers the process. When breaking into a new category we have the freedom to approach creativity with a clean slate, so try to do this regardless. Even if an idea is too off the wall, there may be a nugget in there worth exploring.

> Ask questions.
When we think we know it all (i.e. category experts), we often forget to ask questions of both ourselves and of the client or prospect. No two businesses, products, teams or brands are the same. Ask many questions, and challenge yourself along the way. This will help to build a better collaborative relationship with the client or prospect, show your general interest in truly understanding their business by listening to them and their audience first.

As for asking yourself questions along the way, it is easy to get caught up in industry and marketing speak and not check in. Make sure you challenge yourself and surround yourself with a team that will challenge you.

> Take risks.
Giving creativity an all-or-nothing approach is a risky proposition, but one that comes with little regret regardless of outcome. With Whirlpool, we tossed a dirty sock on the table during our final pitch and with MINI we brought back a man missing for forty years—somehow this worked. And it should work if you know your audience and are able to back up this risk with the right content to show you can successfully do the day to day job.

While risk does not always have to be so physical, it does allow for you and your team to be more creative. Ask what would get you fired? What would a client like X never do? What will they remember us by? In doing this, you and your team will be open to a more creative approach. Maybe you have to dial it down in some circumstances, but better to start off with the risk factor and take a chance.

Maggie O’Neil is partner and senior director at Peppercomm.