Tuning in to a recent Advertising Week debate, Jess Pike heard photographer Rankin and art-loving Scottish National Investment Bank CEO Benny Higgins tackle the age-old question of creativity versus business. But where are businesses (and agencies) going wrong? And why is creativity so often side-lined in favour of tech?
Many a column inch has been devoted to the role of technology in today’s increasingly data-driven world. If it’s not the advance of artificial intelligence or the benefits of the ‘connected home’, it’s driverless cars and drones – whatever you read, wherever you look, commentators are getting their knickers in a twist about tech.
As a consequence, what’s sometimes neglected is creativity – particularly when it comes to advertising and marketing.
At a recent Advertising Week talk, photographer Rankin and businessman Benny Higgins grabbed the issue by the metaphorical balls. Exploring why creativity really is the crux of profitability, they reflected on the danger of focusing so whole-heartedly on data and technology. Why? Because we often lose sight of what really matters: creative thinking.
The hunt for creativity’s biggest enemy
According to Rankin, we’re all ‘toddlers’ in the digital world – tottering blindly from new-fangled app to new-fangled app, desperately trying (and failing) to run before we can walk. The wealth of platforms and social channels out there can be overwhelming – and we’re naïve if we think we’ve really worked out how to master them.
Rankin’s particular bugbear is also one of mine: the debilitating effect of data on our ability to think creatively. Laying the blame squarely at the door of social media giants, he says that these platforms stifle creativity because they lack it themselves. Put simply, their software engineer creators lack imagination and any real storytelling ability (sorry Zuckerberg et al).
But whether you agree with Rankin or not, one thing is clear: while technology – and the data it spews forth – certainly has a purpose (in helping us see how our content is performing, for example, or in targeting very niche audiences) it can also prove distracting. While big data gives us the ability to see returns quickly, it can also cloud our judgement when it comes to thinking holistically about a campaign or piece of content’s success.
Google Analytics is a case in point. A blog or video with a limited number of (page) views might well be dismissed as a failure – if success is measured on that vanity metric alone. But if success is measured by call to action clicks, then perhaps a seemingly poor performer shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly.
One of the problems we all face is the sheer volume of data available – and how to separate the ‘nice-to-know’ from the ‘need-to know’. The ability to see shades of grey rather than just black-and-white is important – even stats and percentages need to be looked at with some degree of imagination.
So how can we avoid being side-tracked by data?
Regardless of increased paid media spend, creativity remains at the heart of good content. For both brands and agencies to do their best work, there needs to be greater emphasis on:
We don’t need Tony Robbins to convince us that the best work comes from bouncing ideas back and forth (between members of your internal team and external providers or clients).
Some of the most original ideas come from the most unexpected places – don’t underestimate Ian in sales or Debbie in accounts. Their perceived ‘lack of understanding’ might actually give them the outside-in perspective that all great creative ideas could do with.
Some of our most sophisticated – and successful – clients have been those that happily put a percentage of their monthly budget aside for ‘testing’.
This could be experimenting with new formats, targeting a new audience on Facebook or trying out a new channel (Instagram, say). They do it because it often leads us to new learnings and greater success in the long-run.
Ironically, a ‘test and learn’ approach is a common feature in agile tech-building teams, but is sometimes not as well appreciated in content creation.
3. (Occasional) failure
It’s okay to get it wrong every now and again if what you take away is fresh insight into your audience or better understanding of how to hone your messaging. At Spoon, we report on best and worst performing content for our clients.
Talking about the best performers is fine – but arguably more useful is a clear picture of what’s not delivering value for customers. Analysing that content can help you further narrow your focus and create content that really lands.
A logical (but creative) conclusion
The best agencies push back against brands’ desire for conformity for the sake of it. The desire for homogeny – perhaps an unintended consequence of channels like Instagram – needs to be fought against. Through collaboration, testing and learning, creative agencies can help brands differentiate.
As women, we’re often told to ‘lean in’ more in the workplace – but in the agency/client relationship, perhaps it’s time to start leaning out. Pleasing clients? Yep, sure. Surprising them? Even better. But as creatives, we should be putting a higher price on our ability to entertain, educate and inspire our audiences in new and exciting ways.
Harnessing technology’s potential might be a no-brainer in 2019, but underestimating the power of creativity is a big mistake – for brands, their customers and that all-important bottom line.
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