The Commoditization Of Creativity

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, April 9, 2015

Six years ago, when on holiday from my Branding gig in Dubai, I traveled to Oman with a book in tow called ‘The Rise of the Creative Class,” by an urban studies theorist named Richard Florida. Since that time, I’ve gone on to read his other books, also covering the intersection of creativity, place, economies and industry. From the books, I took away a common theme – within our urban corridors, people are becoming increasingly creative to the point that what was once deemed differentiating is now quite commoditized. Creativity has become commonplace. 

Before squashing the idea that creativity is differentiating, I should probably take a few sentences to explain what I mean by creativity. First, I am speaking within the context of Strategic Communications. Over the years, Ad agencies eager to reinvent themselves, have positioned “creativity” as this intangible thing that only the most elite and quirky can manage – hence the number of agencies that refer to themselves as “the creative agency.” 



 This thinking is deeply flawed and arrogant when exposed by the magnifying glass of the Digital age. What may seem creative as a one-off asset – like a TV Commercial – quickly falls apart when you realize it doesn’t connect with other assets, reach consumers, relate to their world, or change their thinking/behavior in any business-changing way. When considering the hyper-connected and transparent landscape in media today, true creativity takes on an entirely new meaning. In fact, creativity gets back to it’s proper definition, “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.” 

Having worked in different types of agencies and roles, I have all too often sat through what is quickly becoming one of the most painful experiences forced upon a convergent thinker today: the pitch of a TV Ad storyboard. Everything about this experience is antiquated. Sometimes I am delighted but most of the time my internal monologue plays out like this, “yes, your idea is as nice as a children’s bedtime story with simple words and pictures, but you haven’t used your image and copy-obsessed mind to think laterally about the implications and repercussions or putting these 15-to-30 seconds of one-way communications out there into the digitally-connected world.” 

Often I find that “creative agencies” fixate on the TV and print ads that will feed their increasingly hungry studios and ignore the areas where true creative thinking is needed: the inter-connected user experience. How will people see more, click through, comment, share, buy, and most importantly, how will it actually benefit the business? 

This creativity malaise doesn’t solely rest at the feet of antiquated Ad agencies. Branding, Media, PR and even Digital and Social are also to blame. All too often, Comms professionals try to force-fit their clients’ briefs into pre-existing capabilities – feeding the studios, meeting set commitment levels, relying on trusted contacts and/or using old coding methods, which is a problem hindering creativity, overall. Sadly, all great agencies are time poor and relying on old tactics instead of thinking about doing things differently and better. 

Back in my days in branding, clients came to us with briefs for logos only. We of course laughed under our breath and rolled our eyes as if they were idiots that had no idea about the complexities of branding. Years later as I witness the success of Airbnb, Uber, Netflix, Spotify, Amazon, Alibaba and others, it occurs to me that in today’s digital age, usefulness trumps brand. 

Today, creative problem solving demands that the Ogilvy Ones, Carats, BBHs, and MediaComs of the world must do pretty much everything the client needs, and if they don’t have the capabilities in house, they must find someone in their buildings, LinkedIn networks, or Tech and Media publisher partnerships to do the job for a reasonable fee. No one should be precious about his or her creative capabilities when everyone is increasingly creative. Today, a sense of humility and collaboration is needed to succeed in a creative world. 

So if the industry’s definition of creativity is commonplace, what is differentiating? Lateral UX thinking is the differentiator. With the talent and access in today’s big agencies, there is little need for fragmentation. A team of very smart, naturally creative people can do it all – from planning to designing to booking to buying to measuring. 

Recently, I worked with a big Media partner that actually designed all of our client’s Ads for free if we booked through them – that’s proof in itself that creativity is commonplace. However the overlay of consumer mapping and targeting, with an understanding of psycho/social behaviors is truly differentiating. Too few people have the ability to see almost everything at once and envision the outcome with accuracy. Those with mastery of digital, data, design, culture, business, economics and psychology/sociology will thrive. For those people skilled in behavior economics and digital design, the future looks bright. For those obsessed with TV Storyboards, you may soon paint by the numbers of others. 

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