Does digital productivity need a reset?

In the rush to proclaim the power of automated intelligence and big data, are the creative industries glossing over the fact that 'always on' hasn't actually led to an increase in productivity?

In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes predicted today’s generation would be working 15 hours a week, the rationale being that advances in technology would afford people more leisure time. Fast-forward to the present day and the average working week in the UK has reached 43.6 hours. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, released in April,  Londoners put in 100 hours a year more than the average UK worker.

In the creative industries, where leaders have been known to joke "if you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Monday", this long-hours culture is well-documented. What is less well established, however, is the role of technology in driving and perpetuating fundamentally inefficient and unhealthy ways of working. 

In order to master an increasingly complex consumer ecosystem, marketers must become more brutal and skilled in their use of technology

From digital procrastination to the common use of laptops in meetings and conferences, has the industry been sold a myth as to how technology can transform companies and free up time for individuals to be creative and successful marketers?

Gerard Crichlow, head of cultural strategy at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, makes an analogy with the promise afforded by the introduction of electricity, which back in the 1800s was designed to make people more productive by extending the daylight working hours.

He explains: "Arguably, automated intelligence could do the same. Instead, we use it to watch cat videos or binge on our next movie, much in the same way as people used electricity to stay up late reading, instead of being more productive." ›

It is a state of play that means the role of automated intelligence in freeing up people to be more collaborative and creative is currently underemployed. Crichlow explains: "Automated intelligence should bring people together to solve questions and challenges while humming along in the background." The reality is somewhat different. Instead of humming along in the background of a productive day, for many, an ever-growing digital to-do list is in danger of drowning out the space necessary to think.

White noise

This means that even a cyber attack has an upside. Creative leadership expert Chris Baréz-Brown, author, and founder of Upping Your Elvis, says that when WPP had its recent cyber attack, it had to phone clients (whose telephone numbers took some finding), use low-tech ways of answering briefs (such as paper and pens) and pitch ideas without screens being involved. He claims that one client commented it was some of the best creative work they had seen and found the whole approach refreshing.

By being connected to their colleagues and the people around them, the enforced switch-off had made employees focus in a different way and step beyond the shiny surfaces and sharp edges of technology to engage on an emotional level. Baréz-Brown says: "People working within the agencies felt way more connected, energised and creative. Maybe we should all invent the occasional cyber attack and get back to what really counts."

The efficiency myth

Marketing platforms demand immediacy but immediacy is not always the best approach to building the best work. Ben Little, founder of Fearlessly Frank, says that the industry is confusing fast with being efficient: "Something like Twitter demands a series of immediate responses, but those responses aren’t considered." According to Little, the industry is in danger of losing sight of what he terms "the value of a pause". "Social media is driving a system of immediacy but when you sleep on a decision you often have greater clarity," he says. It is a shift that has significant implications for business. "Innovation does not thrive in a business that is constantly overloaded; space for pure thinking is vital."

When you consider the strategy director at a creative agency who claimed he was "too busy to go to the toilet", it is evident that overload constitutes business as normal in many parts of the industry. Tariq Khan, director of interactive at TMW Unlimited, says there is a problem when workers in the knowledge sector spend as much as 85% of their time either in meetings or dealing with emails, phone calls and ad hoc requests for advice. As a result, it is commonplace for people to do their focused work outside their set hours, when the pressure to collaborate is not as great.

However, he believes this problem is not driven by technology – it’s more to do with the value that management places on collaboration. "Oddly, the cult of collaboration has reached its pinnacle in the very area where uninterrupted concentration is most needed: in creative and knowledge work," Khan adds.

This problem is made more acute in the marketing industry where profile is so vital to career advancement. A marketplace that means mid-ranking executives must compete against chief executives with vast communications teams to build their own personal brand across multiple media platforms and events.

Life: outsourced 

In this environment, it is easy to see why making work that counts and unlocking the time, space and insight necessary to do this is at the top of the agenda for thinking marketers. This new world requires not simply spending more time with technology but making sure you don’t inadvertently become a slave to its demands. As Mark Lund, chief executive of McCann Worldgroup UK explains, technology doesn’t have to be the enemy of creative thought. He says: "Technology will always continue to be the wonderful servant to creativity, not its master."

Yet in order to master an increasingly complex consumer ecosystem, marketers must become more brutal and skilled in their use of technology. Guillaume Roques, chief marketing officer, EMEA, at Salesforce, says that technology is enabling marketers to spend more time on personalised creative content rather than be a blocker to the creativity: "On the one hand, it’s easy to get caught up in your emails and meetings throughout the day and I think that at some point this has happened to all of us.

"However, when used correctly, technology helps us to be more productive, have more time for creativity and enable us to deliver better targeted creative campaigns for the right audience. I think it’s important for marketers to remember that tech is an enabler, a tool – it should complement creativity."

Email undone

The flurry of interest in agencies introducing email-free days or executives turning to vintage Nokia phones shows a growing number of businesses are unlocking the power of simplicity. Creative leaders increasingly recognise that companies have to encourage conversation. "Email will become as irrelevant as the fax machine. We have reached a point where email simply isn’t efficient any more – communication is often lost," Little says.

Indeed, a growing number of companies are replacing internal emails with messaging systems such as Slack. Antony Mayfield, chief executive of Brilliant Noise, which has such a policy, explains: "We encourage the team to do what they need to do to reach a state of flow – whether that be working from a coffee shop or having an afternoon offline."

For many marketers, achieving such a state of flow requires the ability to filter ruthlessly. Richy Pears, head of creative at Sky Betting and Gaming, is comfortable that he has 6,492 unread emails in his inbox, saying "if it’s that bloody important, then somebody will make enough of afuss to get an answer from me". He adds: "I encourage face-to-face meetings. I also encourage my creatives to have the courage to leave lengthy or bloated business meetings when they are sure that there is no reason for them to continue being involved. I would like to see mandatory agendas and a ban on afternoon meetings in the workplace as an attempt to guarantee continuous solid working, which is super important when you are trying to get clear headspace for creative thinking and doing."

In an ecosystem in which a cyber attack provides a source of respite and creative inspiration, the time for a reset is long overdue.

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