Unshackling the Beast

Any seasoned nineteenth century explorer would tell you that there’s a world of difference between encountering a fully grown West African lion on the savannah, and seeing one at Astley’s Circus from the front row of the London Hippodrome. In the interest of providing entertainment, the circus industry had utterly domesticated, commoditised and institutionalised the poor beasts, leaving them caged, toothless and timid; pale reflections of their raw, animalistic glory.

And so it is with advertising and the commoditisation of creativity.

Advertising creativity is the art of the thirty second spot. Making sure the talent holds the product just so. Telling a joke in between two shows someone cares enough to watch. Making the picture sexy enough, the copy witty enough or the music catchy enough that advertising is forgiven for the intrusion of it’s very existence. Keeping the tills ringing, keeping the agency lights on, and keeping the madmen of today cosy in their Aeron chairs.

The naked flame of creativity, on the other hand, burns with a brilliance and passion that pays little regard to the carrier or their personal wellbeing. Raw creativity is the regular bedfellow of insanity, substance abuse, rejection, and people setting fire to you. None of which looks too good on a LinkedIn profile. It’s no wonder that advertising, in its quest to be a good, sensible business that gets invited to play golf with the chairman settles for ‘domesticated creativity’. The kind that will dance for the crowd, and roar on cue. Can we do the roar a little throatier, more like the roars the kids are listening to these days? Of course we can.

So perhaps (spoiler alert) advertising isn’t really that creative. Why do we care? Why not continue sticking a couple of failed novelists and wanna-be film makers into the darkest corner of the office, chain them to Macs, and carry on churning out ‘creative’ work?

Because, like the virgin savannah and the London Hippodrome, the business landscape has changed. We live in a world where Google can become your biggest competitor overnight; where you go to lunch and come back to find that three teenagers in a garage have invalidated your business model; where you worry less and less about your competitors, because at least you know who they are.

There are different ways to succeed in this new world – but maintaining the same old approach to communication isn’t one of them. Marketers are looking for bigger and better ideas. For ways to challenge the status quo and get on the front foot. Solutions that go deeper than advertising, to product innovation, process change, or even business disruption. And well they might, for only with this level of dynamic, responsive change can businesses hope to continue to compete.

So it’s time to unshackle creativity. To let loose the beast, and consequences be damned. But not quite, because we still have a job to do. We don’t want pure creativity, we want applied creativity. Creativity in the yoke of our business problem – strategic creativity, if you will. To get here we will still have to journey to the constantly liminal space between order and chaos where creativity lives.

To unlock this wellspring of potential, businesses need to be aware of the risks in dealing with more extreme forms of creativity. Their unpredictability doesn’t rest easily on a balance sheet. However, expecting agencies to take on the risk of creativity is naïve in a world of hardball procurement and continual pitching. Advertisers will need some skin in this game.

For their part, agencies (or at least those who want to play in the deep end of the pool) need to figure out how to do two things. Firstly, to create spaces in time and place that sit at the edge of chaos, the powerful and generative origin of creativity. Such spaces are exciting yet dangerous – approaches like ‘skunkworks’ and ‘labs’ suggest the difficulty of embedding them comfortably within an organisation. Secondly, we need to build a dynamic, iterative engagement between this creativity and the strategic lens of the problem to be solved. At Naked we strive to do this through the diversity and flexibility of the people we employ, through agile teams and processes, and always through the constant challenge to do things differently and better.

Perhaps a third challenge facing agencies is to wrap this strategic creativity in a layer of account service and an accountable, attractive financial model. This is left as an exercise for the reader.


– Originally published in AdNews | October 31st, 2014.

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