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In pursuit of creativity

I was reminded in a recent pitch of the definition of a very important word; a word that drove me to leave the client side and venture into the agency side; a word that is at the very heart of what we are about.

That word is ‘create’. The definition of the verb is ‘to give rise, to produce, to bring into being’ and I love both the excitement and danger that this provokes.

Re-framing an important word
To bring something new into being is a risk; one we embrace every day; one that thrills audiences in the theatre of the pitch; one that gets us out of bed in the mornings.

However, because of that risk there is a parallel universe in which we try to ensure the risk is justified, contained or even minimised, which can sometimes feel like bungee jumping from about 3 feet – less exciting!

When new ideas are challenging existing conventions, it can feel more of a risk than if we are dealing with the more familiar and established. Hence, we have the ‘adoption curve’, where the majority watch those early adopter types grapple with the new until we begin to see who the winners are; at which point, the price comes down and we all pile in. Steve Jobs made his money with the former while Alan Sugar from the latter.

And so it is with marketing conventions. When it was all new back in my youth, the only way you could get your convention validated was to get an award from your peer group and then go and sell to clients.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve attended celebrations for agencies reaching 10, 20 and 25 years of age and that got me thinking about the number of start-ups in the below-the-line space. There have been less than five in direct or promotional marketing in the 6 years I’ve been at AAR.

The wave of experiential seems over; a few in shopper marketing but, again, many are evolutions or extensions of an existing offering. Digital continues to expand at the technology end but seems to be contracting at the communications end as consolidation occurs.

Why am I worried?
Well, it strikes me that clients and agencies may (inadvertently) be finding it harder to take risks, therefore creating fewer new conventions because we have too much to lose. How many agencies could say that if their founding client walked in today, with the same budget of £60k, they would take them on? How many clients can be as bold as Virgin Media and reconfigure their own business to be more integrated rather than rely on their agency(ies) to do it for them? Not many, I would wager.

The risk many agencies took when they started was to challenge established conventions and ‘create’ new ones. Even with their houses on the line, they believed in the upside of the equation. When you haven’t got any clients it’s a lot easier to be that bit bolder, and it’s a bit more difficult to do now, yet now is the time we need to ‘create’ new conventions.

Clients are seeing the established conventions they have been relying on start to crumble and are searching for the new conventions that are right for their business. The good news is that these are coming – in fact, there are now almost too many new ideas which has lead to a paralysis of choice.
We have seen or heard of a significant number of pitches go into extended phases while the client agonises over the choice in front of them.

Choice architecture
The answer, I feel, is to inject a little ‘choice architecture’ into the mix or, as my old boss would say, ‘no more than three products on the page otherwise the b*stards won’t buy anything, Tony’. So, as we take on the creation of new conventions, we also need to develop a supporting set of arguments that help manage the risk side of the equation.

It feels like we need more of an NPD-type culture where we can talk up the fact that creating stuff is an inherently risky business as this will re-frame the problem more around the excitement and opportunity, rather than the danger and risk, and allow these new ideas to develop and ultimately flourish.

We should be able to use our experience of 10, 20 and 25 years to take more risks, not less, and make it feel like we are living in a theme park rather than walking around a museum.

Create, to bring into being.

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