Creativity and Innovation: Handle with care

‘Creativity’ and ‘innovation’ are delicate and important words, which we misuse at our peril.

Let’s take ‘creativity’ first.

Too often we use the word ‘creativity’ without qualifying it. We fetishize it. We distribute shiny trophies in its name, and we forget what it means to ordinary people.

If you ask the proverbial man in the street for examples of creativity, he will tell you about authors and screenwriters and comedians and musicians and pastry-chefs before he gets to us ad-men. And rightly so. We are not artists. We are not rock stars. Yet at festivals and awards shows like Cannes, it is easy to forget that.

It is no wonder that when people like Hamilton Nolan (author of the recent Gawker polemic ‘Creative Destruction: How Advertising Is Swallowing the Creative Class) wander into our industry events, they leave surer than ever that we are all a bunch of arseholes. At these events, as Nolan correctly notes, “creativity exists in a bubble, allowing it to be admired and marveled at by peers without making the dreary connection to its actual societal function.”

It is the politest quote in the article, but I recommend you read the rest.  There is no better place than Cannes to be reminded of your true place in the world.

After all, there are fewer better examples of our own self-importance than the name we have given to our annual, champagne-soaked love-in. The movie-makers have a stronger claim to the title ‘Cannes Festival of Creativity’ than we do; ours should be renamed the ‘Festival of Commercial Creativity’ as a matter of urgency. Not only would it be more honest that way, it would also give us more interesting things to talk about.

What do I mean by that?

Well, in our business we try to find things for our clients to say that are unique and engaging, and we would do well to apply the same rule to ourselves.

We are fortunate that the tension and conflict inherent in what we do is interesting and relevant to every single person alive today. In Mad Men, it has inspired one of the most successful television dramas of all time, and here in Australia, the thoughtful analysis of advertising is also the subject of one of the country’s most popular panel shows, The Gruen Transfer.

Yet when we reduce it all to the word ‘creativity’, we do ourselves a disservice. We lose the tension and the interest, and we end up with the kind of banal propaganda and mutual masturbation that distances us from people in the real world. The very people we purport to understand. The very people we want to work for us.

Likewise, the word ‘innovation’ is a delicate one that is often handled clumsily. You will likely hear it a lot at this festival, so let’s take a second to think about what innovation is and isn’t.

Contrary to popular belief in the field of marketing, reducing the level of sugar in your products by 5% isn’t innovation, adding a customizable cover to a mobile phone isn’t innovation.

In fact many organizations have entire Departments of Innovation that should be renamed Departments of Slight, But Ultimately Insignificant Improvement. True innovation comes from radical, rather than marginal thinking. And true innovation makes or breaks companies.

Why does this stuff matter?

It matters because our clients don’t buy ads and they don’t buy creativity, they buy change.

In our business, creativity and innovation must always remain the means rather than the end. They are the tools we use to solve the puzzles we are given, and a proven driver of business success (thanks to the hard work of James Hurman and others, that conversation is closed), but they are nothing in and of themselves.

It is important that when you are reviewing all the ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ work submitted for Awards consideration this year, that you do so with a critical eye.

If it didn’t change anything, it doesn’t count.

Tom Ding, Strategic Planner – GPY&R Melbourne