Is ‘creativity’ still a viable USP for agencies?

I decided to write about this topic as I had read 3 different things recently that kind of related to this.  First, I’d read this blog entry from an old colleague; then I joined a LinkedIn conversation about whether the industry’s interpretation of creativity is more important than the customers’; and finally I read a book about developing better creative work.

When you talk to people about what ads they think are good and like, the answers tend to be enlightening and diverse.  Because creative is so subjective, everyone will have an opinion – some will like it, other not; some will find it endearing, others patronising.  As a result, some people will buy it (giving you a return in your investment) whilst others will not.  So if customers, who ultimately buy the products have these differing views, can an agency ever really be universally acclaimed to be creative?  And what does that mean anyway?

What is creativity?

Personally I quite like the definition by Rosabeth Moss Kenter: “Creativity is a lot like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope.  You look at a set of elements, the same ones everyone else sees, but then reassemble those floating bits and pieces into an enticing new possibility.”

I buy into this, as most things have been created, what hasn’t been fully explored is how those things can interact with other things in the world and that is where the vast bulk of creativity comes from.  It is about putting things together in a way that no one has ever thought of or done as effectively – think using the internet for networking and finding old friends rather than relying on reunions.

So creativity is a viable USP?

Well not necessarily, because the definition (although I agree with it) fails to deal with one issue – does it work?  Creativity (in advertising) that doesn’t deliver results from the client is worthless.

The other issue with creativity within the industry is that although agencies externalise the term, they rely on industry awards results to define themselves as such (assuming they win). However, these awards deal solely with the ‘artistic’ side of the creative, not the return.  So, these awards give great kudos to the agency with blatant disregard for the client – the very people who pay the agency bills, that help pay for these awards.

If you were to use the analogy of football, being ‘creative’ without results is like being Holland in 1972 & 1976 – widely revered as the best team in the world, but lost the World Cups to West Germany and Argentina.  Great art, no return.

Am I saying it’s not then?

Not in and of itself.  Don’t get me wrong, great creative can make a good proposition amazing, but being creative for the sake of it (i.e. with no purpose) is just artistic self gratification.

A great example where the ‘creativity’ overtook the message is the Bravia ads.  ‘Balls’ was a fantastic ad and sales went through the roof, but then the advertising became about making something grander in scale than ‘Balls’, to the detriment of the message – which is why ‘Paint’ and ‘Bunnies’ were created.

I think clients demand agencies to be creative, but more than that they demand that an agency deliver communications that work.  As a client, would I rather do something standard but that got me a 20:1 return or something unbelievably creative that only got me 6:1?  I’d say the former, although the latter would be infinitely more fun.  Ones chances of career progression are far greater if you are seen as a ‘deliverer’ rather than as a ‘creative’.

Then how do we move forward?

I think the starting point is toning down the industry chest beating when we create something which we perceive to be creative until the campaign results are in.  Similar to the old adage of ‘If a husband talks in the woods and his wife isn’t there, is he still wrong?’, ‘If you create something beautiful but no one sees it or buys it, is it still creative?’.

As any business, we are ruled by the results we deliver, so if we do not take this into account when judging creativity we are doing our clients a disservice, we are kidding ourselves about our work and, crucially, we are providing future advertising generations with the wrong examples of good work.

Any industry awards we do give out should be ‘judged’ by those who pay everyone’s bills – not the agency, not the clients, not the media partners but the customers’.  Did they part with money to pay for the clients’ products?  That is the criteria all agencies should be judged by and should strive to excel at.  If you can be creative doing so, then hats off to you and I hope you had lots of fun doing it.

Returning to the football analogy, agencies should strive to be Spain – playing beautiful football that delivers results.


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