The detached arrogance of creativity | DMA

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The detached arrogance of creativity


My earliest exposure to marketing’s creative process occurred when I was precariously placed between two alpha-females in a 1990 direct marketing agency.

As account executive, I was sandwiched between a dogmatic creative director who paid the wages and a demanding client with hands on the purse-strings.

The creative director wanted a blue advert; the client a red one. The creative director thought red would mimic The Economist. The client disagreed. I was troubled, powerless (possessing neither the seniority nor personality to affect the outcome) and trapped between two forces of nature.

I guessed then my career lay outside a creative agency and presumed there was a better way to negotiate creativity rather than personality and purse strings. The next 20 years became a cathartic reaction to that challenge; trying to shed objective light - let’s call it research and analysis - into the creative process. Stripping back creative output to its component parts to understand what works, what doesn’t and for whom?

It’s difficult to buy into the often detached conceit of the creative process. Creativity relies upon catalysts, inputs, irritants and in nearly all cases, feedback. Few creatives can do their thing in a detached bubble but too many think they can.

I do accept it’s possible to occasionally produce inspiring marketing without research and analysis. I also suspect that inspiring marketing is never developed through strong research and analysis alone. But - and this is an important but - the logic does not follow that strong creative is not enhanced by the support of research and analysis.

This is a very important point. Creativity should not exist in a vacuum. Objectively analysing creativity is not about undermining it, but rather directing and multiplying it.

A great challenge of direct marketing creativity is interacting with specific and diverse audiences. The creator is rarely the audience. The speed and efficiency of the recently ubiquitous internet means these discrete audiences can be rapidly harnessed to provide objective feedback to look under the creative bonnet.

The creative bonnet


Consider a DRTV ad that lives or dies based on the action it generates. The component interconnected parts can be stripped back, measured in isolation and benchmarked. Does the brand resonate with prospects compared with that of competitors? Is the message engaging? Is the product clearly understood? Is there a clear call to action?

An under-performance of any of these will affect overall performance. Rarely does the aggregated performance of component parts not strongly correlate with overall reaction. This simple truth means that lifting the bonnet of creativity can help to explain its appeal and give clues about how it can be enhanced.

For examples of how research can work for you click here;

Direct Mail

These days marketers gorge on the digital metrics of email; delivery, open, click and response rate. What about direct mail? Fretful weeks can pass as direct mailers wait to learn the response rate, having already incurred the not insignificant cost of production and media.

When all is revealed, they must guess at what point non-responders dropped out. Who opened the envelope? Did the letter engage? Was the offer understood? Did they see a clear call to action?

If instead, marketers threw on their research overalls and lifted the bonnet of direct mail campaigns, they could imperfectly recreate that communication journey from post box to breakfast table.

When the creative genius has done his/her job, large volumes of customers of similar profile to the intended recipients can be asked to react to it. It’s not perfect; but it’s better than a fretful and costly wait for a single, ambiguous response figure.

For examples of how research can work for you click here;

And so…I imagine revisiting my 1990 creative impasse, with the last 20 years under my belt. I consider how I would handle things.

I would look under the creative bonnet and involve the target audience via the internet asking hundreds whether the red advert reminded them of The Economist and if it did, would it affect their likelihood to respond?

I’d then have the courage to direct the creative process with the benefit of insight rather than personality or purse strings. The power of one voice or the power of a thousand?

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Loved your comments about the interaction between creativity and data, although I strongly advocate that data can also have a role in the creation of ideas rather than merely the selection between ideas.

And also with the opportunity to assess longer term impact than just short term responses.