I am always struck how creative agencies – design, branding and marketing etc – are often so limited in their ‘creativity’. Of course they impress clients with their media and graphics skills, strong presentation of concepts for campaigns, and often complain that the client will often pick the most conservative option. On several occasions the budget considerations have made the clients’ choice for them, not knowing which is the strongest ‘creative’ proposal.
But how should the more creative ideas be presented? The smartest agencies look in detail at the business objectives of the client and match this with tangible ways of approaching the creative element, the vision and the brand values. By ensuring you give some metrics that the client can relate to (and meet their own internal objectives more easily) and projects have some way of measuring success (ROI usually), everyone is much happier. This is of course why digital rules the roost these days – it has the best tracking, analysis and metrics that can be fed into the client’s goals and objectives.
But for me this reinforces a fundamental truth about business creativity, innovation and branding: the vast majority of people - including those in the ‘creative’ sector – do not think creatively about solving problems and generating innovative solutions. Human nature dictates that we all go for ‘what we know’ first of all as it lowers the risk we perceive in doing something new or different.
The creative industries look more creative because their training, skillset, approach and problem solving (see ‘The Designful Company: How to Build a Culture of Nonstop Innovation’ by Marty Neumeier) are so different from ‘conventional’ client thinking that it looks creative by default. But it is not the insightful creativity that can generate breakthrough change and innovation that is the most valuable to everyone involved. It does not make a brand more powerful, or employees more engaged, but simply supplies a ‘sugar hit’ of a well executed, ‘original’ visual identity.
So how to get out of this ‘default’ mode – confusing ‘different’ for ‘creative’? There are three principles that I have identified that can massively improve insight and ‘true’ creativity that will impact strategy, the participant teams, and the options for action:
- Separate facts from conjecture. I’m a great fan of the ‘Six Hats’ methodology by Edward de Bono, which separates discussion of solid facts, supposition, problem solving and identification of assumptions. By breaking the project down into a ‘map’ of these elements, it is quick for everyone to avoid confusing knee jerk assumptions for facts, and do some lateral thinking about areas that need more work (or data) or creative solutions that might be appropriate
- Challenge roles and team structure. Peer pressure and company structure, particularly from line managers or board members, can steer the process into dead ends and wasted efforts. Find ways for clients to step into the shoes of the agency, or different departments, and vice versa, even if temporarily. Insights related to the ‘true’ definition of success for a project (not just sales +X%) will give a more rounded definition and enable more people to contribute to the process.
- Don’t be afraid of stretching a point to break it. Sometimes following a small insight to its logical conclusion, no matter how crazy, can open up a new way of thinking about problems, even if it doesn’t end up with a ‘perfect’ solution. For example, an insight that a particular colour is unpopular in only one range of products but not others might enable you to define the drivers of that market segment in a much more granular way – maybe by looking at colour theory, geographic or cultural factors, or point of sale display strategies – which might lead to further insights.
Towards a new approach
I would suggest that the last really useful factor in making all this work is the relationship between client and agency (and sometimes this could be an internal creative team as well as an external one) – there is nothing wrong with having different approaches, but the willingness to have even one ‘open’ meeting to explore assumptions, facts and strategic goals can make the difference in the conversations that will shape the project over the next weeks or months.
Key questions for creativity:
- How afraid of risks (failure) is everyone: are clients wanting to push for something ‘crazy’ to make a statement or deliver results? is the agency set up to push back at the client about assumptions which will constrain their options?
- Are all the facts and boundaries understood? Creativity is not about doing things ‘different’ for the sake of it, but finding insights that will stretch everyone to identify new opportunities for success – and this can be within quite narrow criteria.
- Are the teams diverse enough? As the implication for the brand should spread beyond the initial project, other parts of the business should benefit from any major project, which means that involving a broad team of participants will benefit both the project, and the legacy of the project for the company – both in terms of culture, strategy and individual’s positive feeling for the place they work.
So how do you ensure people who work for you, or you work with, are creative in the broadest sense? How do you break out of ‘kneejerk’ ways of thinking or doing projects because they’ve work before? it would be great to hear your views. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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