Agencies need to redefine creativity

Agencies need to redefine creativity

Most of us joined this industry to do work that would be seen by our friends and our mums. But today, some of our best ideas will never be seen.

Ironically, when I started in advertising, I hated advertising creatives. I’d come from the BBC, where people were creating all kinds of interesting programming and formatting but never had the hubris to label themselves "creative". They didn’t need to, they were. 

Advertising "creatives" seemed very angry and not very creative. Uppity hacks who felt entitled to prance around like aesthetes because they’d knocked out a crappy formulaic ad.  

It’s all about your frame of reference. 

Is everyone creative?

Today we live in a world where "everyone is creative". So, if "creative" is in your job title or the name of your company, you need to be bringing something pretty exceptional to the table.

Which begs the question, what will be the role of a "creative agency" in the 2020s? 

Again, it depends on your frame of reference. And mine, while complex, is one more and more people will experience.  

What does it mean to be the chief creative officer of not just a creative agency but a creative agency that includes consultancy, innovation, data analytics, pricing, B2B, PR and performance marketing?

How should we think about "creativity" given the diverse mix of disciplines at our disposal? 

There doesn’t have to be a single definition, but here’s mine.

Great creativity is any idea that ingeniously improves the way a company connects to its consumer. 

Creativity now goes beyond conventional comms

Because today, like it or not, a company’s body language is far more eloquent than its advertising. So we cannot afford to marginalise our creativity to conventional comms, because our clients' creative needs are greater. 

Yes, last year Iris produced a lot of ads. But we also created an algorithm for KFC that uses CRM data to predict the success of new product launches with near perfect accuracy. We helped the National Lottery create a new game. We created an in-race innovation that reinvents the motor-racing experience (pictured, above) – and so on. 

It’s important that we talk about these solutions because our industry’s most traditional output, advertising, is our most visible, while our most genuinely "creative" work can be virtually invisible.  

Most of us joined this industry to do work that would be seen by our friends and our mums: a TV ad or a poster, a presence. But today, some of the best ideas we produce will never be seen because, rather than creating a presence, they create an absence – of a queue, complaint or problem.

Currently, we assign too much value to the things our peers will see and too little to real innovation. 

Yet it doesn’t matter whether it’s an ad, piece of code, new product or service initiative. All that matters is: does it ingeniously remove a barrier between the consumer and the brand? 

This is the real value of our business going forward.

If the original purpose of ad agencies was to help companies connect with consumers more creatively, this is simply an updated iteration of that purpose, one that accounts for all the technological and societal changes of the past two decades. 

And it’s needed now more than ever because amid all the waffle that business theorists generate, the original purpose of the companies we serve has never seemed more obscure. 

Great companies are marketing companies

When a company is created, it is (one would hope) to better address a specific consumer need. But too often, as it grows, the management distances itself from this and the role is reduced to a department: marketing. And marketing is treated as a cost. Worse still, if the company goes public, it risks developing a further schizophrenia by confusing its shareholders’ needs with those of its consumers. 

Yet great companies, from Apple to Virgin, Amazon to Uber are, and remain, marketing companies – they stay focused on their customers’ needs and continually innovate to develop the most relevant solution to them. Everything else is in service of that.

So beyond the echo chamber of adland, this is a message to the C-suite and the City: marketing, by which I mean your ability to connect with consumers in a surprising and exciting way, is the tide that raises all ships. We must all find new and better ways to support it. 

All companies need to understand that they are primarily marketing companies and that, to succeed, they need innovative and imaginative solutions to all the barriers that exist between them and their consumers – be they ethical, environmental, pricing or awareness. 

That’s what our industry needs to gear up for. Whether through purposeful strategy or even, in some cases, a post-rationalisation of desperate, shareholder-appeasing M&A binges, we now have the ability to help create better companies, rather than just better comms.

What could be more "creative" than that? 

Shaun Mcilrath is the global chief creative officer of Iris

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