Making money from mediocrity: a key barrier to creative excellence

With many of the bigger digital transformations hitting their closing stages in 2020, brands are going to be looking for differentiation beyond seamless experiences. To do that, they will need to engage the right multidisciplinary creative talent and take a few calculated risks, but they will also need to stop making money in these 3 key ways as they push towards brand differentiation.

1. Treating creative thinking as a cost

Many organisations view creative thinking as something that costs them money instead of creating a long-term boost to profit, mostly because it can take an indeterminable amount of time without an immediately saleable result. Even when short design sprints are adopted, sometimes the only result is knowing what not to do, which is real progress for innovators but a crisis for people who need something they can immediately commercialise after each sprint to justify the time spent. Anecdotally, organisations know that innovation and commercial success are connected, but when departments are designed around short-term monthly commercial targets, it can be difficult to justify paying for the time and skill required for the kind of differentiated thinking that can make a genuine long-term impact. This is even more of a problem when you pay for time by the hour or day, making it more appealing to pay labour as little as possible and setting random deadlines you can afford. However, as the old saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Brands who continue to make a short-term gain from forcing their talent to work for less and to restrict their thinking to the tactical are unlikely to create highly impactful solutions for their business in the long-term. This is a cultural problem that is likely to attract mediocre talent who will tolerate poor compensation and restrictive work.

2. Restricting creative thinkers to optimising and solving non-problems

Unfortunately, there are many marketing teams that are still forced to operate in silos, having no ability to impact the products and services that customers really care about. When this happens, marketers are restricted to advertising a sometimes poor customer offering, creating business-centric problems or simply optimising variants of marketing content. When we talk to talented creative people about the least creative work they have done, it often comes back to being asked by marketing teams to solve business-centric problems disguised as customer problems or working on something that was so tactical and restricted that it made them feel redundant. In a time when tactical marketing creative could be better performed by machines, it might be a better idea for brands to put creative talent to work on strategic challenges that can create real differentiation for customers and the society they function within. However, while we wait for AI to hit its stride and silos to be broken down, many marketing teams have money to spend on the work creative talent doesn’t want and, in this climate, creative agencies are still lining up to take that cash. The question is, how long will that last, and how will they retain creators who already have many more options when looking for the kind of work that makes better use of their talents?

3. Project-based profit vs project-based impact

The commercial success of a project is often judged by whether it meets the agreed timelines and budget. When organisations don’t have the frameworks to judge if something is innovative or creatively excellent and the potential commercial impact of that work on their business, nor an ability to determine what a reasonable investment would be for that kind of work, hitting a deadline and budget is the only other indication of commercial success. Sometimes time and effort has already been pre-determined by the investment available. Even when a proper estimation is allowed, creative talent find it very difficult to estimate the effort involved in generating innovative outcomes because new territory, by its nature, is difficult to predetermine; creative excellence also involves time to be able to craft and refine, as well as being able to change direction if required. Even with these known issues, the creation teams are put in the position of limiting their time and effort to what was agreed or can be afforded, instead of just focussing on doing great work. In truth, organisations may have profitable projects in the short-term when they restrict their teams in this way but the work will do little to differentiate their brand in the long-term.

Changing organisational thinking

To move away from mediocre creative thinking, organisations need to be far better at showing a direct connection between their overall commercial success and their investment in creative thinking and talent (they could start by reading the chapter on why to invest in employee experience in The Employee Experience Advantage by Jacob Morgan). Most importantly, they will need to buy the room for creative talent to focus on interesting strategic challenges in ongoing sprints to try, test, learn and iterate on brilliant ideas that can make a real impact.

Experience Strategist, using insights about human behavior to fix broken experiences for customers and organisations.

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