Where Does Marketing Creativity Come From?
From a talent perspective, one of the critical areas of emphasis these days for many business organizations is creativity. Indeed, you hear a lot about how large organizations, in particular, are re-engineering themselves to become more “creative” – to unleash the power of their employees to innovate and develop and market new products and services.
But where does creativity come from? And what does it really mean to be creative? Let’s begin with a story.
When I was starting out as a reporter at U.S. News, I remember there was a senior writer who was giving advice to many of the younger writers. She said: “In order to break the rules [of writing], you have to know what they are.” At the time, I thought it was a bit self-serving – the reason she made up for having the freedom to write in various styles that others envied. But the more I thought about it, the more brilliant her construction was. If you try to break the rules of writing without learning the fundamentals (i.e., take a shortcut), you will most often fail at your goal of producing good, creative copy. That’s because your audience comes pre-equipped with a shared set of common understandings about good writing and when they see yours, they may not react positively to what you produce if it’s completely foreign.
That’s where a lot of people get tripped up about creativity. It’s not about producing something completely new. Here’s how we would define it:
Creativity is taking a concept that’s known or understood and twisting it slightly so that you can still see the original shared understanding, but what you’ve produced is “slightly” different.
If you think about humor, for example, it’s exactly this concept. Something is funny because it’s a slightly different take on a known issue or concept. In art, it’s the same thing. Taking a story such as Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare and turning it into a modern-day version (West Side Story), etc. Things that are completely new or unrecognizable are generally not creative. And that’s because something that is completely out of the blue has no existing anchor to what people already know.
How You Get More Creative in Marketing?
Marketing is a fertile area to start becoming more creative for your business because, ultimately, it’s about encouraging behavior change within your audiences. (Typically, getting them to purchase something, donate, or talk to a sales person.) And, there are many ways you can go about doing that. We’d suggest there are a few methods for becoming more creative as a business:
- You hire for it, typically for producing advertising or other marketing/design content.
- Or, you do it yourself by implementing a couple things:
- Start a process of observing more about people in general.
- You create the conditions for it.
Let’s explain what we mean in detail for each.
Hiring for Creativity
It’s OK if you’re not creative or don’t have a creative bone in your body. You can certainly learn it, but it may be an area where you either know your limitations or that you simply think hiring someone could save you a lot of grief. If you do hire for it in marketing and design, for example (especially an agency), make sure of a few things:
- Their type of “creativity” fits with yours. Remember creativity is subjective. Not everyone shares in the same understanding.
- The tone they use fits your brand. In design, that can be the use of colors, the moods created etc. In text, make sure the language and voice fit where you’d like to go.
- You’re willing to give up some control and be open to new ideas. If you know you’re a control freak, it’s likely that a lot of creative people won’t be willing to work with you. Creativity certainly involves setting the conditions to be creative (as we’ll outline in a later point) but you’ll want to understand how to be a good “client” and step back and let people create on your behalf.
Start a Process of Observing More About People
In the marketing class I teach at Georgetown, one of the main themes we talk to students about revolves around being curious – especially when it comes to people. After all, in marketing the ultimate goal is to understand as much as you can about your audiences and use that information to influence their behavior. As an example, find out:
- Who they are
- Where they come from
- What drives them / what’s their ambition
- What they are afraid of
- What they love
- What they hate
- What they find interesting or funny
- What their talents or hobbies are
There’s obviously so much more as well. The point, though, is that truly creative individuals understand human behavior. They “get” other people. That’s what allows them to create such interesting marketing, products, art, humor – whatever the medium is.
Create the Conditions for Creative Marketing
We often like to say that “creativity isn’t an event.” In other words, you can’t just say to your team: “Go brainstorm and be creative.” It’s not something you turn on and off, in other words. To illustrate this, my thoughts always turn to the arts – in particular, a specific decade – the 70s.
Let’s take movies that were created in that decade as an example. Think about the types of original films that were produced then versus today: The Godfather (I & II), Rocky, Jaws, Network, Annie Hall, Star Wars, The Deer Hunter. Could any of the films produced these days be close in terms of producing the lasting impact or legacy of these films?
Or take music.
Think about the albums alone that were produced that decade: Hotel California, Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin IV, Who’s Next, Sticky Fingers, Let It Be, Rumors. The list could go on and on. Each of those albums introduced something creative, whether it was a different take on the blues, folk, progressive music etc. Today could any reasonable individual argue that the same music produced these days will have the same lasting impact?
That’s not to say that artists today in film or music are any less talented than they were 40 years ago. But the issue they face is that the same conditions don’t exist today that they did for artists back then. The 70s, after all, were a time before record companies and movie studios dictated the “style” or “the sound” they wanted – in other words, before they began over-producing the end work to gear it toward what they thought would “sell.” From the 1980s on, I’d argue the arts have been focused on this latter question and, as a result, has basically produced very little of lasting value and not the same level of creativity.
Now, on the surface, you would think that people trying to engineer a song or a movie “that would sell” would be a good thing, right? It would make those individuals analyze what “type” or film or style of music the public generally liked and produce that for them. In theory, it should produce value. But it actually doesn’t for the long run. The reason it generally doesn’t work over the long term is because it’s a shortcut. Essentially, it’s a copy of something that ends up being formulaic, not a creative interpretation of what already exists.
The Story of AltaVista
Perhaps I can illustrate this issue of copying and short-cutting a bit more in a business context. Many years ago, I worked for a company called AltaVista. At the time, AltaVista was ranked as the No. 7 website in the world. In other words, it had a huge amount of traffic and arguably the most well-known search engine on the planet. But AltaVista didn’t really want to focus on search. It wanted to be more like Yahoo, the number one site in the world, so it made a number of business decisions to become more like its rival. Simply put, the company executed a strategy that more or less tried to copy what Yahoo was trying to do. The rationale was easy: “It works for Yahoo and it would work for us.”
The problem, of course, was that it was a lazy decision and also a disastrous one. After all, just a few years later, Google (a company focused primarily on search) would become the dominant force on the internet, leaving Yahoo and Microsoft in the dust. And needless to say, despite AltaVista’s specialty in the search business – it was then too late to make up ground on Google. The company eventually went out of a business.
Creativity in a Business Context
When it comes to company marketing, one thing we want to emphasize is what creativity isn’t. It’s not letting yourself or employees create anything they want under the sun. In order to be creative you have to have focus, but without dictating exactly what you want (like the movie and record producers did after the 70s) as an owner. In other words, you have to define the rails on sandbox but not say what to put in the sandbox itself or how to play in the sandbox. That’s not an easy thing to do for many business owners who want and love control over an end product, marketing or anything else related to the company. How do you set that sandbox without dictating? A few things you can try:
- Focus first and foremost on your audience and answer many of the above questions about them.
- Have you and / or your team compare your audience with yourselves – what you as individuals value. What do you find funny, interesting, compelling? How does that stack up against your audience?
- Outline the overall goal of what you’re trying to achieve (but don’t dictate how you would do it.)
- Remind yourself or your employees to keep the existing brand identity in mind, but don’t dictate a particular a tone / voice you’re looking for. Let them come up with it based on audience characteristics, your brand, and other factors.
- Give you and your employees room to explore different paths on the way toward that ultimate goal. One good way is to have you or them tell stories about themselves, customers, or any of the ways that individuals interact with your brand.
Remember, one person’s creativity might be another’s bewilderment just because not all of you share the same experiences. So, in the process, it’s important to learn how to give feedback that doesn’t denigrate others’ attempts. The worst thing that can happen is – and the quickest way to shut off creativity in your company – is to enable conditions where you’re attacking another’s ideas. So, be open and be constructive.
We hope this has helped in terms of defining creativity and how it can potentially work for you. Our goal at Marketing Nice Guys is to help you excel in digital marketing. If you need help, don’t hesitate to call us for a free consultation at any time.
 If you’re curious, I think YouTube will still have some of the more famous AltaVista commercials, “Smart Is Beautiful” about the wonders of search. We even got Pamela Anderson to do a spot for us.