My Work in PRogress guest this month is the incredibly talented Iona Townsley, who is a Creative at NeoMam Studios.
I bloody loved this candid conversation with Iona, who shared so many nuggets of wisdom on all things creativity, campaigns and managing your mental health in the digital PR industry.
Not only is she incredibly wise and generous, but Iona has also recently launched her own newsletter, called The Grapevine, which rounds up (almost) every digital PR campaign from each month to create a super handy resource. You can subscribe to Iona’s newsletter here, and I hope you enjoy our conversation…
What is your ultimate shower song? (The song you can give a 10/10 Grammy-worthy performance on in your shower on a Saturday morning)
I might get some stick for this but I actually don’t have a go-to shower song and sing like a dying cat. I’m not a big fan of music in general (don’t start). If I’m down or need some motivation I do default to Power by Little Mix though.
What are your three favourite campaigns EVER?
This is an INCREDIBLY hard question to answer, but I’ll mention the three that instantly came to mind:
- Trash Isles – LadBible x AMV BBDO
This project was the love child of LadBible and AMV BBDO that tried to get the transatlantic garbage patch recognised as its own country to get people to see the horror of the plastic problem. They designed an official flag, stamps, passports and currency as well as a petition to make the potential country as real as possible. They even went as far as to leverage celebrities such as appointing Dame Judy Dench as The Trash Isles queen and The Rock as Minister of Defence. The results speak for themselves.
- The Tampon Book – The Female Company x Scholz & Friends
Promoting a worthy cause with a creative solution, what’s not to love? The Tampon Book was launched In 2019 to highlight tax discrimination of period products which at the time were being taxed as luxury products. They used the tax law against itself to fill a book full of tampons which would then only be taxed as a book would at 7% compared to period products’ 19%. The campaign won a Cannes Lions Grand Prix in 2019 and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since
- Climate Crisis Font – Helsingin Sanomat
One of my favourite creative content examples is by a Finnish newspaper called Helsingin Sanomat. The Climate Crisis Font was created to highlight climate change in a way people couldn’t ignore. They created a font that melts with the NSIDC’s Arctic sea ice data showing how ice Is expected to shrink because of climate change. The font is fully downloadable and beautifully presented on the landing page with chilling posters, graphs and animations.
“I love purpose-driven campaigns. I think there’s so much we can do in our industry in terms of highlighting key issues and getting them noticed.”
What would be your advice to someone who doesn’t consider themselves naturally creative?
There’s a lot of back and forth about if people are only naturally creative or if you can learn to be. I think all our unique experiences make it possible for absolutely everyone to have a creative flair, just some people may know how to harness their creativity more than others.
The first step I’d say is to dispel the thought that you’re not a creative person. You’re just instantly putting a barrier up and creating doubt that you can do it. I’ve had many times in the past when I thought I wasn’t a creative person, but it had nothing to do with my ability, just my own self-doubt.
I recently read a book called A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young (it’s very short) that detailed a proven process for thinking up ideas. Even if you don’t think of yourself as creative it gives you the best basis to allow for creativity. A lot of the time people think you can just shit out an idea in a brainstorm if you’re creative but it’s not true. You need time, the right environment and the right information. The book takes you on a 5 step process that I encourage everyone who thinks they’re not creative to try.
If in doubt, my DMs are always open!
The industry we’re in can sometimes require us to have an “always-on” in order to spot opportunities for new ideas, campaigns and coverage. How do you manage your mental health while working in the industry, and what are your favourite ways to switch off and set boundaries?
This is a LOADED question and I could honestly go on about it for hours.
I really struggled with switching off in previous roles. When you’re in a situation where everyone is working late and where jumping on something last minute is praised, it’s almost impossible to impose boundaries without thinking your career will suffer.
The PR industry is full of young people who have never set boundaries in a work environment before because we’re either in our first role or we think we need to barrel ahead all guns blazing to get as far in the industry as we can in as short a space as we can.
Frustratingly, I think a big part of the responsibility is on the employer. They need to foster an environment where people feel comfortable finishing for the day and fully switching off. Not just saying it, not offering buffers like finishing an hour early when the footy is on, but actually lowering workloads so people don’t feel compelled to be working late.
Personally, I find working in PR difficult when there’s a lot of negativity in the news cycle. It really affects me whether or not the news story personally influences my surroundings or not. I know a lot of other people feel this way. I’ve had days where the news has felt so negative (thankfully less so now Donald is out of the newspapers) that my anxiety has been almost unmanageable. It’s entirely ok to dip out of problematic places for your mental health. I sometimes ignore Twitter for weeks just as it can feel really insidious.
I honestly can’t give ideas on how to switch off. Going for a walk away from your laptop at lunch might help some people. Deleting Slack and work email from your phone might help. Everyone is different and everyone’s working relationship is different. But the only way you’re truly going to switch off is if you don’t feel compelled by your employer or the industry to be always on and if your workload reflects that. We’re all perpetuating, and have been for a while, a praise of toxic productivity (yes even me for a long time) and it needs to stop.
Checking coverage and pitching journalists can wait until the morning, ideas will come naturally, work tasks are for your 9-5.
It’s PR, not ER, right?
Where are your favourite places to gain inspiration for new ideas?
There are two main ways I get inspiration for ideas.
The first is to do active research into topics and campaigns related directly to your client. For creative campaign inspo, I tend to look at Famous Campaigns, Visual Capitalist and The Drum to see what others have been doing. I don’t just look specifically at digital PR campaigns but open up to creative content, PR stunts and more. I dip into Reddit to see what people are sharing around my topic. I look on Answer The Public for related queries that might spark something new. I also analyse what competitors are doing to see if there are new formats that are working for journalists or particular topics that are doing well.
The second is a passive way to be more creative and that’s to simply consume. It’s something that I think is always forgotten about or not taken as seriously because it’s hard to instruct. Consuming anything and everything is key to opening up new ideas. The more you take in the more you’ll have to work with and often ideas will end up popping up out of seemingly nowhere.
This includes watching documentaries, speaking to someone new, going to a museum, reading an article about a topic you don’t know much about, everything, I could go on forever. The more you soak in about the world around you the better chance you’re giving yourself of creativity. After all, creativity is just finding a new way of connecting two or more things.
“I’d say more than half of my ideas come from passively consuming content rather than actively trying to force inspiration. Something will just click and I’ll write it down, ready for when it fits the perfect client.”
Carrie sparked the idea of Sandtone by visiting beaches around the UK and noticing the different shades of sand.
The Mouldy Whopper by Burger King I can’t help but think was inspired by the ever-enduring McDonalds burger in a museum in Iceland.
Finally, what does being a work in progress mean to you? (Both professionally and personally).
It means you’re a nice big blob of clay that’s never going to dry but can be moulded into anything and everything you want. You can add bits, take bits away, whatever, you’re always going to be a new version of yourself.
It doesn’t mean always progressing. You’re not going to get a medal when you’re dead for how hard you’ve pushed yourself, or if you do it’s not like you can savour it. Since the pandemic I think we’ve all learnt to slow down a little bit and realised you don’t always need to be improving yourself, or at least not to the ridiculous extent everyone was trying to.
“There’s never a finish line.”
So yes, progress, always be a work in progress, but under your terms.