Andy Rice

Effective creativity. It’s a concept that is central to the marketing discipline, and yet it is also one that is dismissed by too many marketers as an oxymoron. You can be creative, they say, or you can be effective.

But never both. And despite the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, blinkered brand owners still trot out tired phrases about wanting to gain their trophies at the supermarket check-out rather than at awards ceremonies.

The facts would suggest that what these self-anointed plain speakers see as courage is in fact simple cowardice. Far from being mutually exclusive, creativity and efficacy are positively correlated. The most recent evidence is perhaps also the most convincing: by comparing the databases of the Gunn Report (creativity rankings) with the IPA Databank of Effectiveness, it has been shown that over a sixteen-year period (1994-2010), creatively-awarded campaigns were seven times more effective than non-awarded ones (rising to 12 times more effective in the more recent period 2003-2010). Why, then, do so many people who should know better still deny the importance of creativity in brand communications? I would suggest that the answer lies in that general catch-all pit of scrambled motivations that we call “human nature.”  And in particular, in our in-built inclination to take the path of least resistance by favouring the manipulation of rational information and data over the more complex territory of emotions, insights and other intangibles.

“The more you know the less you understand”
I learnt this distinction quite early on in my career from a wise boss who was fond of quoting Einstein’s observation that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” while simultaneously bemoaning the undeniable absence of anything remotely resembling an insight in the “brand bibles” that formed the reference point for our day-to-day decisions. He would no doubt approve of my own favourite quotation on the same subject, taken from the classic Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching: “The more you know, the less you understand.” Those words might have been written 2500 years ago, but with today’s explosive proliferation of big data (and its sinister sidekick, marketing analytics), we could certainly do with a bit more Chinese wisdom to keep the all-powerful knowledge providers in their rightful place.

The problem extends beyond advertising and brand communications generally. Solving it will take more than a collective vow that we will give our agencies a freer rein when responding to campaign briefs. Creativity is not just under threat within those areas where it has traditionally been accepted; it is being assailed from every corner of the marketing profession. We are all complicit in the slow assassination of creativity, arguably the only sustainable differentiator we can wield in our defence. Consider the evidence and, more importantly, the culprits.

The dirty dozen!
First to step up into the dock is the one we blame for most things – the marketing director.   Chanting the mantra, “What can’t be measured can’t be managed”, the marketer insists on measurability from all service providers, who therefore gravitate towards existing, tested solutions rather than unproven, innovative ones: Logic 1, Imagination 0.

Guilty parties numbers two and three are the marketing director’s co-conspirators, the financial director and the head of procurement. These are the geniuses who fought to put as much of the agency’s fees as possible into a performance-based revenue model. Who in their right mind is going to jeopardise profits by taking risks with their clients’ budgets? Certainly not the agency head, who is already staring at wafer-thin margins; better safe than sorry is the inevitable strategic outcome.

And speaking of agency heads, the finger of blame must also be pointed at the agency’s management team. After all, they were the ones who accepted the risk/reward fee structure in the first place. What’s more, they have embraced the view that we are all in a service industry and must adopt a culture to match, which means hiring people for their likeability, gregariousness and selling skills rather than for their creativity. The sign is already up on many an agency’s door: Grumpy Geniuses Not Welcome Here. More’s the pity.

Next into the spotlight are those ubiquitous digital gurus. In many ways they are Public Enemy Number One, for they are armed with the most seductive weaponry of all – statistics. Week by week the numbers mount: a gazillion Facebook accounts opened, e-mails sent, apps downloaded, footage uploaded. Who can resist the siren call of these unprecedented figures? Surely they must contain the secret to understanding mass consumer behaviour, which we can then harness to our brand’s benefit? Well, no, actually. The numbers are large because they are simply a new manifestation of old human truths. We haven’t suddenly become a newly evolved species, Consumer 2.0, with a USB port behind the left ear, emitting a quiet hum as we go online. We are what we always were, and no amount of statistical manipulation is ever going to take the place of instinct and judgement in our pursuit of human understanding.

Make way for media planners and buyers, as guilty as anyone of stifling what little creativity remains in the marketing profession. For here the numbers game also rules the roost, with planners meekly surrendering their strategic role in favour of those hard-nosed buyers who screw a further 3% discount out of the media owners, ignoring the fact that a braver, more imaginative strategy could have delivered a much greater performance advantage in the first place. Oscar Wilde could have been looking squarely into the eyes of our modern media experts when he noted that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

And now we turn to face the media owners, to assess the extent of their complicity in this sad scenario. Here, the verdict is brutally simple: guilty as charged, for the unforgiveable crime of accepting appallingly mediocre advertising as if it had no effect on the perceived quality and value of their medium. They hurriedly pocket the transgressor’s shilling, blind to the fact that, in doing so, they not only devalue their future pounds, but also encourage those delinquent advertisers to repeat their uncreative crimes. Ever wondered why there are no bad ads in Vanity Fair or in GQ? Because they have editorial standards to maintain, and the courage to protect them by turning ho-hum advertisers away.

Strategists are a strange bunch. Stranded midway between research and creative, they are neither fish nor fowl (I should know, I’m one of them). Stung by the fact that the best strategists in most agencies are in fact the creative directors, they (we!) try to offset the inevitable inferiority complex by seeking to prove beyond doubt that their proposed strategy is the best option. Unfortunately, proof is usually the bedfellow of a surfeit of rationality. Instinct never needs the succour of algorithms or confidence intervals.

The two worst words in modern marketing fall far too frequently from the lips of IT developers, and seal their guilt accordingly. I’m talking about “big data,” stuff that’s too cumbersome to be analysed by conventional software and which has spawned a new technological sector dedicated to the manipulation of the previously unmanipulable. Like mountaineers, when asked why they would want to do this, they reply, “Because it’s there,” turning a deaf ear to the wiser voices who point out that just because you can count something doesn’t mean that it matters.

Practitioners of the art of human resources probably don’t think they have very much to do with marketing. That’s because no-one has ever told them that the brand promises made to the world outside by the marketing people actually have to be kept by everyone in the organisation.  So HR should immediately stop their ingrained habit of giving priority to qualifications and category experience, and should instead concentrate on finding and keeping people with the right values, attitude and beliefs. A truly creative organisation will always put chemistry above academic competence.

Let us not allow the public sector to get off scot-free. Legislators and regulators believe that they have an obligation to, well, legislate and regulate. And in doing so, wielding all the while an intimidating arsenal of punishments, they create a new generation of fearful and risk-averse marketers pandering to a horde of mollycoddled and overprotected consumers. There’ll be precious little flourishing of creativity in such a barren landscape.

Finally, plunging fearlessly into the heart of the lion’s den, we have to consider the role of the market researcher, and in so doing we uncover another profession apparently sharing the common cause of suffocating marketing’s creativity. If they are accused of using the word “quantitative” more frequently than “insight,” can researchers honestly plead not guilty? Do they all have a clear conscience when accepting the lucrative opportunity to test what they know to be untestable? Are they not guilty of encouraging those infernal data collectors to collect still more data? Are they truly champions of creativity?

Et tu Brute?
The dock is getting pretty crowded by now, and the prosecution has apparently marshaled a substantial body of evidence to indicate the defendants’ guilt. In mitigation, however, it must be stressed that no single party has displayed any significant amount of malice aforethought. No one sets out to stifle creativity, given that it is certainly the only sustainable differentiating attribute that the marketing profession possesses. But the cumulative impact of a multitude of small assaults is just as damaging, however noble the motive. Creativity is indeed becoming the victim of death by a thousand cuts. It may be an unintended fate, but that apparent blamelessness will be cold comfort when marketing finally succumbs to the cumulative effect of those many blades, and is relegated to little more than a supporting role as a backroom boffin, counting, measuring and comparing, but never creating.

Et tu, Brute?

Andy Rice is a brand strategist and marketing consultant operating from Johannesburg, South Africa. He is chairman of Yellowwood, the country’s leading strategy consultancy.

This article is based on a keynote address Andy gave to open the 2012 Convention of SAMRA, the South African Market Research Association.