It would be hard to find a marketer who would not agree that marketing has become much less creative and much more process-focused. We tend to idealize the 1960s world, stereotyped by the television show Mad Men, where the creative team ruled the business and the great idea was the best product marketers had to offer their client or employer. At the same time, we lament the rise of technology, complaining that marketing and sales automation has forced us into a never-ending loop of justifying our value based on whatever numbers our client or bosses choose to watch.
What Happened to Marketing Creativity?
It’s easy to blame the shift to more process-focused marketing on the rise of marketing technology and the associated capabilities of measurement. But it’s also true that we have used technology as a crutch, a substitute for our own creativity, in order to get things done faster, or, at times, with less hard work.
Don’t get me wrong: Automation and measurement are important to a functioning marketing team. Without it, you can’t scale and you just don’t know what’s working and what’s not. You need automation to deliver just the right message to just the right person at just the right time and to know whether you succeeded and whether the person took the action for which you were hoping. As marketing gets more and more personal, the need for technology to handle more tasks at a higher level of functionality will only increase.
Is marketing creativity getting lost in automation? I don’t think so.
Creativity, though, marketing creativity is the role―and the greatest contribution―of humans in marketing (and beyond). You can’t delegate that to an automation system. I think it’s time for us, as marketers, to remember it is still human creativity that drives our work; our automation systems cannot be the source of our creativity but rather the tools we use to automate and scale that creativity.
Is your marketing really as creative as it could be? Here’s an example of using technology as a substitute for marketing creativity. See if this scenario sounds familiar:
Your digital marketing team is about to launch another email campaign (the last one worked pretty well, right?). They decide on the new target audience. They then look at the last campaign in your marketing automation system and copy it. They edit the content to more closely match the new idea. They swap out the calls-to-action with new ones (which look surprisingly similar to the old ones―with apologies to Pete Townshend). They check it over and hit send.
This is how the vast majority of marketing is being done today. Email campaigns are being copied. Ads are being tweaked. Even paid search parameters don’t really change much. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to understand. It’s low-risk―both from an investment perspective and in how you have to explain the lower results (it was just like the last one―we thought it would work!). We accept incremental change and incremental results, because we can understand it. And because our marketing automation systems, which were designed to automate tasks, are being used as a substitute for creativity.
Nobody ever made a difference in any market by doing something just like what they had done before. You can insert the Apple branding story of your choice here, because the ways they changed thinking and changed consumer preferences is exactly the point (My personal favorite story about how ads changed minds and the market is the “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign.).
How do we put the marketing creativity back into marketing? It’s not easy, but it’s critical if you want to make a difference in your market, to your clients, and to your company.
Three Ideas for Putting Creativity into Your Marketing
Here are three ideas I use to get my creativity back into my marketing efforts:
Morgan McLintic, managing director for the U.S. for Lewis Global Communications wrote an interesting piece for LinkedIn, titled Why You Aren’t Creative Anymore. He discusses the ancient Greek culture’s two different expressions for time:
Chronos, he explains, is the concept we understand as the ticking of the clock as time passes. It’s the way time gets measured and how time passes. It’s how we synchronize (notice the root word, chronos) to get a common understanding of when things happen.
Kairos, on the other hand, is a qualitative passage of time, similar to Csiksgentmihalyi’s concept of flow. It’s the place where we take the time to focus and create.
McLintic argues that the endless distractions and demands prevent us from creating the space for creativity. We are not just endlessly busy; we are distracted. We might be with our families, but we are thinking about work. We might be meeting with a colleague but really worried about the meeting with our CEO tomorrow. Focus―a key element of flow―is hard to come by. Plus, we live in a culture that values busy-ness. We are always under pressure to appear busy, even if we are not. That ends up creating more stress as we force busy-work on ourselves to meet the expectation we think our surroundings―especially our work environments―force upon us.
Getting that space is hard, probably harder than it’s ever been. But it works. Here’s how I saw that happen recently.
I was leading a messaging project for my company. We needed to not just revise our messaging but simplify it and communicate it in a clear, simple, concise way that anyone―in our market or elsewhere―could understand. Even if you do every day, you know this is no easy task. I took the usual steps, interviewing lots of people, consolidating feedback, looking for common threads and so on. When I looked at my output, I had four PowerPoint slides with messaging statements and explanations― anything but simple.
I threw it out. I found a quiet place and put on the music that, for me, tends to inspire but not distract me (Mozart’s Symphonies No. 40 and 41). I thought. I recalled everything every customer and prospect had said. I wondered why they bought from us. More importantly, I wondered what they were trying to achieve when they bought from us. As I sat there, the image came into my head of what must be in their heads. Then the word showed up that described it. Then I used the word in just the right sentence. And that was it. I had my answer.
Now, I stop just like that for every campaign I launch. I encourage my team to do the same. The result is I am starting my work with creativity―the critical element of marketing success. I’m not letting my marketing automation system be my crutch for marketing creativity; I’m doing the creative work and letting the marketing automation system do its job of automating what I created.
2) Finding Our Inner Four-year-old
Sir Ken Robinson discusses how our schools kill creativity. It’s worth the nearly 20 minutes to watch.
He tells this story (slightly edited for readability):
When my son, James, was four in England―actually, he was four everywhere, to be honest. If we’re being strict about it, wherever he went, he was four that year. He was in the Nativity play. Do you remember the story? No, it was big, it was a big story. Mel Gibson did the sequel; you may have seen it: “Nativity II.”
But James got the part of Joseph, which we were thrilled about. We considered this to be one of the lead parts. We had the place crammed full of agents in T-shirts: “James Robinson IS Joseph!” He didn’t have to speak, but you know the bit where the three kings come in? They come in bearing gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This really happened. We were sitting there, and I think they just went out of sequence, because we talked to the little boy afterward and we said, “You OK with that?” And he said, “Yeah, why? Was that wrong?” They just switched. The three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, “I bring you gold.” And the second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.” And the third boy said, “Frank sent this.”
Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original―if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.
Trust me, it’s much funnier when he says it. But he’s right. He tells the story―now pretty much folklore in the education business: when you ask a class of kindergartners who is an artist, pretty much everyone raises their hand. When you ask a class of sixth-graders the same question, only one or two raise their hands.
You probably can’t go to work and act like a four-year-old. But you can take the time and focus to let yourself play with your thoughts and ideas like you did when you were four, then take what you come up with, and put it into grown-up terms your colleagues will understand.
I can pretty much guarantee you show more marketing creativity than anyone―including you―ever expected.
3) Avoid Groupthink
This should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to make a decision in a meeting. You know the pattern all-too-well: Everyone speaks, carefully avoiding stating an opinion, until the boss chimes in, then everyone suddenly agrees with the boss, showing how what they already said supports their agreement. This is not just a business phenomenon.
Brainstorming sessions are a really good way to avoid this. But most brainstorming sessions fall prey to the exact same malady. We are afraid to offer ideas that might seem too far away from the norm―or worse, too stupid. We want to be seen as part of the team, and we want to be seen as intelligent.
One technique I have seen used is to let everyone do their brainstorming alone, while in a group. In this approach, you might hand everyone slips of paper or post-it notes. Ask everyone to write down everything they can think of, one idea per slip or post-it. When everyone is done, collect the notes so they are not associated with any individual. Let the group get together and look at the ideas, then start sorting them out and prioritizing.
Groupthink is a very dangerous and insidious bias that can kill any attempt to offer anything creative before it is even stated. You probably know this intuitively. Avoiding the fear of groupthink will let you find a way to offer your marketing creativity and maybe make a big difference in your next project.
These three suggestions are far from the only ways to reestablish marketing creativity. I’m pretty sure you have a few other ideas (please offer them in the comments below!).
Reestablishing the role of creativity is critical to the success of your marketing efforts and to the success of your organization as a whole. It’s time to stop letting automation drive all our thinking and let it do its job―automating the creativity humans bring to the work.