“It hopefully should start to calm down next month” – a sentence almost every PR has said at some stage, knowing full well that quiet periods don’t really tend to exist. 2023 has already been no exception and PN was fast and furious out of the traps with a plethora of creative briefs on the table and the need to respond, as ever, fairly urgently – but for the sake of growth mindset and steering our mentality towards doing business better, we took a breath at the start of the year to give our creative engines a quick MOT. In the pursuit of constant (and consistent) improvement to get the best results out of both our colleagues and our clients, we sought to overhaul the creative structures already put in place and build on these foundations – behold, the creative facilitation team.

Borne out of the desire to deliver genuinely imaginative ideas to our clients, whether new or retained, and unblock old patterns or habits of thinking. We wanted to prove once and for all that creative isn’t just for creatives. We’ve collectedly pledged to unlock the creative aura in everyone we work with – whatever shape that may take.

For example, convincing our clients (especially consumer ones) to buy into an idea is attempting to deconstruct a sometimes-strident belief in something that isn’t working, mistaking ‘what we’ve always done’ for good and effective marketing. Taking two days out of the business for a more intensive look at the best ways to facilitate creativity bestowed new life almost immediately into how we approach creative briefs on the First Floor and far beyond, using bountiful techniques to both put a fire under our billable work that need a little extra TLC as well as entice prospective audiences. With an accumulated 26 brainstorms since the training refresh already under our belts and countless others in the pipeline, we’re practising what we preach in real time and, best of all, getting the results and learnings in real time too.

Let’s take one of our skincare brands as a proof point. We can often fall into the trap of getting reductive before we even get expansive, but the new skills afforded by Matt’s training means we can allow ourselves to remove the crash barriers if a good and scalable concept is at its heart. I co-facilitated a workshop to look at how NIVEA could instigate major behaviour change amongst its female audience – and in a matter of hours, the question of “how do we, the brand, become dot dot dot” to “how do we help people look at their bathrooms differently”. A subtle shift but one that instantly transforms the rigid into something more yielding with plenty of paths for exploration.

In terms of my own creative confidence – surprisingly, housekeeping has become a huge part of the creative process and it’s so freeing to powerfully set, and respect, the expectation. Namely, only using technology in the room when it’s going to further the session, knowing that about nine times out of ten, it doesn’t. Empowering attendees, whether it be to close their laptops or leave their phones at their desk increases creative productivity almost immediately – if you let yourself be strict with this. Happily most of our cohort have agreed they can leave the tech at the door knowing the likelihood of an emergency in the next sixty minutes is fairly slim. The focus rendered from this simple step is so potent it should be bottled and sold – perhaps a creative idea in itself for Q3…

The quick leap headfirst into our new guardrails for creative ideation really proves the adage that everyday is a school day. Combining totally apposite minds from across our team structures, and with a range of personality styles, creates magic from the mixture – not to mention a far greater understanding of our peers and their passion points away from the day-to-day collegiate boundaries. With personalities, we’ve taken the approach of leaning in to flexible and fluid facilitation – namely, are you forward (more assertive), backward (more passive) or alongside (a combination and fluctuation of the two). One of the dawning realisations in the first couple of hours for me was that you don’t need to be a perfect blend of all three; coming from a performing background, I personally tend to be more forward but in adapting my style to curate productive sessions I can use a softer process (and utilise the more subdued techniques of fellow facilitators!) to quite literally create the space to turn thought starters into fully realised concepts.

A note on this teamwork – playing with pairs and partnering with another facilitator to host a session, not only takes the edge off your own individual pressure to perform but also settles the scenario. Particularly powerful words from our training session: your state, and the state of others, is often more important than your technical ability. To that end, your state also leads others. Combining or at least considering the physical, mental, emotional and at times spiritual states of the room can have a huge impact on the output left behind. By literally sharing the load, you can coerce, curate and capture – with technically, half the energy required.

In terms of practical learnings I’ve pulled a few out which I’ve noticed already and am adding to along the way…

  • Fiercely interrogate a brief to isolate the real question to solve. Then, maybe fiercely interrogate it again just to make extra sure you’ve shaken all the fruit from the tree
  • Scribbling ideas while moving at pace is really hard work – resist the pen and land the idea, before committing it to paper. Use a ‘car park’ or even have another pair of hands on deck to capture thought starters as they come in so you can refer back to them later without losing a train of potentially valuable thought
  • Flipcharts are not necessarily your friend… I want this on a T-shirt
  • Don’t fear Fridays… I also want this on a T-shirt. Weirdly enough a creative session at 4pm on a Friday can prove far more fruitful than Wednesday at 11am, when the weekend is on the horizon and the inhibitions (especially about being judged amongst your PR peers) are on the wane

Lastly – get OOO. Stimulation-wise, the First Floor can either resemble a countryside railway station where trains run twice a day, or it can feel like Clapham Junction when there’s an exodus of city dwellers heading out for a weekend in the country. What I mean is, it’s either very quiet and therefore too limiting for sessions that need to encourage (creative) noise, or else there are so many stimulations and distractions that you can barely let yourself think. Switching your environment, and in my opinion just heading up to our panoramic views on the Seventh, can make such a difference to expanding your mindset. Allowing your eyes to fall elsewhere, either on the Leadenhall building or on LEON next door, can really revolutionise your perspective without even cognitively realising. Similar to the sense of state mentioned above, in insisting on these physical changes then quickly the environment becomes more important than the skill in creating the right place for more lateral and generally more creative thinking to thrive.

When it comes to my own adaptions as a creative facilitator – continual learning feels especially key. By nature I’m highly energetic and a natural storyteller. I also sing and dance and muck about on stages in my spare un-billable time. I would therefore consider myself, at heart, inherently creative. But when it comes to always offering my clients the very best ideation I also accept that what I sometimes already know about the work we do puts up obstacles and blocks real innovation from flowing out freely, which then means the question (to solve) can stay unanswered. This is frustrating both in-house at PN and with our clients, but it also crucially means that sometimes we run the risk of not unlocking that next phase of potential further work and consequently additional budget.

Learning about who I am as a facilitator means I can unearth my personal potential and adapt the different F.A.B. styles better to get the best from a group. I know from my own past both performing and leading a classroom that I can get a room on side quickly, I can think on my feet, and I can share my own experiences to create even outside observers to want to be involved. But in making myself vulnerable to review I’ve also helpfully discovered I’m also good at signposting, I’m good at dropping insights at crucial moments to allow for expansive stimulus, I’m tenacious at drilling down the ideas. Equally I could benefit from overplanning as long as it doesn’t hem me in, I know that I should be careful to make sure ideas land and not just float, and I know that I shouldn’t be afraid of focusing on one gold dust idea and developing it further rather than jumping to the next thing.

The best part about the creative facilitation journey is that with each session you’re consistently evaluating what your own sweet spot is – for me it’s getting points across entertainingly, but also steering it straight back to the task at hand and driving delivery. To that end, my door is always open…