The Only Creative In The Room: When Your Colleagues Are Smarter Than You

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, August 26, 2016

Working with a bunch of geniuses can be a lot of fun. Ask the guy riding the elevator with you what he did over the weekend, and he may just respond that he was working on a new way to cure Alzheimer’s. Make small talk in the cafeteria, and you’ll learn that the woman in line ahead of you is a surgeon who saved a life or two before lunch. These interactions make working for a large health system incredibly rewarding, and they keep me and my fellow marketers always engaged and always learning. But let’s be honest: sometimes, geniuses can be a handful.

If you work in an industry that attracts people with big brains and big ambitions—high tech, finance, medicine, media, and many other corners of the information economy—you know how challenging the smarties among us can be. Some of them, for example, are so focused on what they do that they consider every other human pursuit, even the simpler ones, unworthy of attention. Some see niceties as a waste of time. Some expect you to know as much as they do, and grow frustrated when you don’t. 



This can be a lot for anyone to take, but it’s particularly trying to those of us whose job is to market the goods and services of our companies. To be in marketing, as readers of this publication know so well, is to pride yourself for your creativity, to find new ways to tell compelling stories, to inspire people and to move them. These, sadly, are not the qualities we often associate with surgeons, scientists, software engineers, corporate lawyers, and other impressive individuals who, if asked, would not necessarily define themselves and their pursuits as being in any way creative.

What, then, is a marketer to do? The question is more than a theoretical one, and it is especially relevant now that we’re all online and all required to market ourselves to one degree or another, on social media and elsewhere. As more and more of us work for knowledge-heavy industries, we need to find innovative ways to cross what I’ll call the Creativity Divide, the invisible but sizable wall that separates CMO from CTO, say, and make sure we all find a common language in which to share our vision with the world. How might we go ahead and do that? A few ideas come to mind. 

First, realize there’s no monopoly on creativity. The nerd who started her company in her garage with a soldering gun and a heap of spare parts, for example, may talk about her passion in a very technical way, but her ideas are informed by a spirit of tremendous creativity, a drive to pursue an idea all the way to fruition, and a desire to share her vision with the world. These are all things that we marketers can understand; if we treat our analytical friends not as members of a different species but rather as folks who express their creativity in divergent and interesting ways, we’ll create a necessary common ground where, too often, only mutual distaste now stands.

But common ground requires common language, which is why a good marketer should first and foremost learn the language of his company, and teach his language to his company’s executives. Working in health care, I am constantly striving to better understand the incredibly complex procedures and advanced research some of our doctors and scientists oversee each day, making sure that when they mention intricate terms in conversation I have a solid idea what they’re talking about. 

Similarly, I make an effort to explain to them terms that to a CMO may seem absolutely self-explanatory, but to someone who’d spent her formative years studying anatomy, say, can sound as foreign as the medical lingo does to me. Of course, we should always honor the fundamentals of our industry, and never oversimplify or misrepresent. But we’ll never be truly effective in engaging a larger audience unless we speak in shared terms we can all understand.

These shared terms, however, mean little unless we’re pursuing shared goals. The final advice I have for fellow CMOs and other communicators in the knowledge industries, then, is to make sure we only embark on projects that compel and excite all of us on board, the scientists and the storytellers alike. An initiative, no matter how striking in theory, isn’t likely to succeed if it doesn’t make clear and perfect sense to the men and women who write code or trade stocks or fight cancer. 

As the alpha creatives in the pack—CMOs and designers, branding gurus and PR experts and all of us entrusted with communicating with the world at large—our job is to steer our companies towards turfs that fit their sensibilities and their sensitivities: some CEOs, for example, would scoff at some promotional ideas, but find others much more palatable and pleasurable. Working together, we can make sure we each find just the right way to tell our company’s story in a way that feels organic for all on board. It’s not an easy job, but if there’s anyone creative enough to do it, it’s us.

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