Creative Director in a Parallel Universe

My Transition from Advertising Agencies to a Great PR Firm

A few months after joining Coyne PR, one of my co-workers shared a PRWeek article written by another advertising creative director who’d migrated to a PR agency. I suddenly felt less alone, less of an outsider in a strange land. In fact, I reached out to the author of the article and had a good email exchange and a nice phone conversation. I’d found a kindred spirit.

That was five years ago. With some perspective, let me share part of my journey.

Before joining Coyne, I had interviewed at several PR agencies looking to bring on advertising creatives in order to expand their offerings. I had no clue what PR actually entailed. The only association I had was “publicity stunts.” Media relations? Influencer engagement? SMTs? Never heard of them. I did have a vague idea of what “earned media” meant.

When I first stepped foot into Coyne PR, I thought it looked like an ad agency. There were lots of logos from very well-known brands and tons of cool tchotchkes. The people looked like the people you’d find at an ad agency. If it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. Right? How different could PR really be?

What’s funny is that I crossed paths with Coyne PR before without even realizing it. During my time at Y&R, I worked on Campbells and V8 at the same time Coyne was handling the PR. Small world? Parallel universe? Kismet?

After meeting with Tom Coyne and Rich Lukis, I quickly recognized the high priority they place on creativity. And while I was “not in Kansas anymore,” I knew this place was special.

Coming from advertising, one of my first assignments was right in my comfort zone. It was to create an ad for Coyne PR. Yes, even a PR agency needs to advertise sometimes. Tom showed me an idea he had been considering. While it wasn’t quite there, I did see amazing potential with the core of his concept which was two words: Insert Coyne. I pounced on that line and we ended up producing not just a one-shot ad but one of my all-time favorite campaigns.

While that campaign was a hit and won a bunch of awards (including Gold in the Graphis Advertising Annual), my transition had plenty of bumps along the way. It takes time (and some sleepless nights) to adjust and find the right places where you can add value. After all, I was working largely outside of my wheelhouse.

One big shift for me is that creativity is not the product or responsibility of any one team in particular. In PR, there is no creative “department” per se. I noticed that while my new colleagues came up through the ranks with titles such as account executive, account supervisor and account director, many of them had more in common with what I would call “creatives.”

Right away I participated in agency brainstorms and was impressed with and excited by a lot of the ideas being thrown around. We didn’t do many brainstorms in ad agencies. It’s done differently.

So, I wondered, what did a creative advertising person have to offer to a creative PR firm? Plenty, it turns out.

My approach to creating is different from everyone else here. Not better, just different. When I would hunker down and draft a creative brief, I’d get a few funny looks at first, but then heads began nodding. I was providing a new perspective. My mission here is not to change how the PR folks ideate, nor for me to begin thinking like them, but rather, become a living example of one plus one equals three.

It’s funny, though, that my new colleagues didn’t necessarily see themselves to be as creative as I was seeing them. In fact, they used the noun “creative” very differently than I did. To them, “the creative” was a thing – a design on a poster, an invite or even a wall cling. To me, “a creative” is a person whose job it is to be creative, while “the creative” is the thinking, the problem-solving, the concept as well as the execution. While the semantics may differ, the passionate quest for great ideas is the same. I consider this proof that comfort can be found outside of your comfort zone.

What’s particularly exciting is that I can contribute ideas for PR campaigns to a wide array of brands across multiple industries. Back in my traditional ad agency days, this was not encouraged because it was outside the scope of work for our clients. Yet there were cool ideas that I instinctively believed could work, even though I had no clue how to execute PR. Now I sit among experts who know how to take an idea, add the right amount of context and relevance and amplify the $%@# out of it.

Becoming an expert in public relations is not my goal. No more than it’s the goal of my colleagues to become advertising experts. We have achieved success in broadening the agency’s capabilities.

While earned media is still the primary focus at our agency, we have managed to build an advertising portfolio of which I’m quite proud. And not just advertising, but all kinds of content from digital to social to experiential. You can’t define us as traditional, because we are not. Perhaps the most gratifying achievement is that we have clients who consider our Studio as their lead creative agency.

The line between advertising and public relations grows blurrier by the day. This is an opportunity for smart agencies to focus on the growing needs of clients by offering a wide array of communication expertise. Collaboration among professionals with varying experience is the key. With the speed of change, it’s getting harder for agencies to truly be “full-service” – but we can definitely be fuller service.

The author of that PRWeek article from five years ago is no longer working in a PR agency. He left long ago. However, I do know a few other creatives who have since made the shift from ad agencies. Happily, I might add.

It’s the same. But it’s different. And that’s what I absolutely love about it.

Rob Schnapp
Rob Schnapp, SVP, Exec. Creative Director