Karping About Creativity

Last week I attended True University, a two-day seminar for startups hosted by True Ventures, the West Coast venture capital firm. The event, held at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., brought together over 250 people from True’s 150-plus companies. It was a highly creative group of people working on some exciting problems.

During our classroom sessions and team-building exercises, I was struck by how much creativity and design has become embedded in Silicon Valley startups. No longer a backwater of poorly designed software, tech firms here have significantly elevated the role of design. In fact, one of the most popular sessions was about the value of branding.

At the same time this event was happening in Palo Alto, a continent away the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity was taking place. As I was constantly reminded -- thanks to my industry friends who flooded Facebook with pictures of yachts, P. Diddy and Nas -- there was one hell of a party being thrown in the name of creativity.

David Karp, founder of Tumblr, was clearly drinking from the Cannes Kool-Aid (rose?) when he said to attendees, “You guys are more talented than any one in the Tumblr office or in Palo Alto or Sunnyvale.”

Like many people, I was surprised by Karp’s comment.

It’s worth pointing out that it is the engineering-led companies like Microsoft, Twitter and Google that now underwrite significant portions of the fun at Cannes. And a compelling argument can be made that the people who underwrite startups -- the venture capitalists -- have had a greater impact on economic activity than marketers over the past twenty years. Venture-backed companies now represent 21% of GDP in the United States.

The issue is not if the people in Cannes or Palo Alto represent the apex of creativity. Fanning the flames of a rivalry between marketing and engineering creativity is pointless.

In the past, the need for a distinction between the two kinds of creativity has been driven partly out of fear: fear that engineering creativity would supplant marketing creativity. Some of those fears have been realized. Just as media subjugated advertising a couple decades ago, now engineering is subjugating media. The rise of platforms has brought commoditization to both creating and buying ads. I wonder if agency creative sometimes think to themselves, “Welcome to the club, media people!”

Fortunately, tech companies are pretty nice overlords. While engineers build and own the platforms, they ply us with a CMO job here or a board seat there. Over time our careers are being transformed, and we’re all joining the party.

As a former agency executive recently said to me, “I used to make ads. Now I feed feeds.”

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1 comment about "Karping About Creativity".
  1. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , June 25, 2013 at 4:19 a.m.
    I would love to see a blog about whether marketers have *any* effect on economic activity. Isn't it just a zero-sum game? When one company gains sales by clever marketing, doesn't this mean that other companies lose?