Who Are You Calling Creative? Why We Need to Rethink and Restructure Creative Development.


“Creativity" has long been celebrated as the heart, value, and appeal of the advertising industry but what happens when we limit the meaning, and inclusion of creative spaces? After decades of championing the notion of “creatives", the time has come for the industry to rethink who and what defines creativity. So many of us came to the media profession, advertising, marketing, design, etc. via the allure of creativity but maybe we have been thinking about it all wrong, all along. The digital revolution of the last 20 years has led to major evolutions in the way we conceptualise and produce advertising and other media, but a critique of the meaning and value of creativity itself, has remained a tumultuous “no fly zone" for too long.

Many professional spaces, but particularly the advertising world, have become extremely limited in defining who and what constitutes creativity. But, in an industry where the concept of creativity has ruled uncontested or critiqued for decades, the tides are changing. Insight-infused, even insight-led creativity is quickly moving to the forefront of good advertising and in the next wave of the digital revolution informed creativity will be a requirement, not an option.

Creative at Heart, Insights by Choice:

When I started studying journalism at university “data" and insight were the furthest things from my mind. Busy newsrooms, hard-hitting narratives and brain storming sessions with a room full of plaid-shirted hipsters were the ideas that drew me in.

I was born genetically-predisposed to a hatred of maths. I spent most of my high school career skipping algebra for the beach (sorry Mum!) and revelling in more “creative" subjects such as Music, Poetry, and English. But, at the end of college I was introduced to statistics, and had a moment of enlightenment that changed my career trajectory and perception of what constitutes valid “creativity" forever.

When I set out on my professional media career, it became undeniably evident that data and insight were not only under utilised, but sometimes completely ignored. Even in cases where major monetary and time investments were made (things that are inarguably quantifiable) very few people were asking or attempting to connect creative concepts with definitive measurable outcomes or goals. My PhD research again presented me with a similar conclusion but this time I discovered a lack of valid data being called upon by many of the mainstream news media outlets. In the end, these experiences led me to question why so many were clenching their fists at the information sitting at their fingertips. Although the answer is a complicated one traditional and reductive conceptualisations of “creativity" remain one of the biggest barriers to insight-infused creative development.

Breaking Creative Barriers:

Creativity in theory is a wonderful and elusive thing. Seemingly untamed by societal convention and often discussed as an almost visceral element of the human experience, the notion of harnessing creativity has been written about, dissected, and sold. But, when we choose to talk about creativity in these terms we simultaneously support a type of “have" and “have-not" notion which marginalises anything that appears to escape the bounds of what we as an industry or as individuals, perceive to be valid creativity. This line of thinking has created a sticky paradox. Although most agencies accept that “creativity" is significant and necessarily pervasive throughout every aspect of a campaign, it is simultaneously approached as an intangible, subjective, and unquantifiable concept. Basically, this outlook is a “catch 22" that positions creativity as an integral yet, undefinable element of media production.

In many ways the elusiveness of creativity is what forces us to take risks, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, this same issue is what has enabled creative elements of the advertising process to evade deliberate calculation, consideration, and responsiveness for decades. Although much of the tech world has embraced the potential of big data, analytics, and insights for years, the time has come for the ad world to join them.

Although there is no single cookie-cutter remedy to bridging data-backed insight and creative development the first problem is the repetitive conceptual isolation of the two. The notion that “creatives" and “analysts" are integrally different in terms of their professional purpose creates and upholds a divide which progressive agencies, including our own, are attempting to break down. By breaking through the longstanding barrier between creativity and both qualitative and quantitative insight, we put knowledge at the core of creative development, and as such create a solid foundation for building deliberate, and informed campaigns.

In the information age creative concepts demand explanation and although this can seem inconvenient it pushes us to think harder and produce better work. Now, the logic which underpins creative concepts should not only be explainable to a seemingly “non-creative" audience, it should also be connected to tangible insights and relatively foreseeable outcomes. Where we once turned to analytics as a way of retrospectively determining the success of a campaign, now we must look to digital insights as a means by which to proactively formulate, steer, and even shift on-going campaigns. Today, if a campaign is a total flop, “It was a creative decision" is an excuse, not a reality.

Of course, failure will still happen. Similarly, we should continue to take creative risks as no measure on this planet can tell us whether a video of a piano-playing cat or a sobbing “We support Britney" fan will go viral. However, from here on out all risks should be calculated and judged in a way that ensures that the time/cost investment is worthwhile. In short, there is no longer any reason for creative campaigns to take shape in the absence of information and insight.

From Reactionary to Revolutionary:

Knowledge and data-driven competencies have often been marginalised to an advertising afterthought rather than an integrated and integral part of the creative process, but now we have moved the insights from reactionary to revolutionary. Where insights were once used to report on results, they are now being used to create them.

Strategists have always been the insight ambassadors of the advertising industry but the digital world is redefining the ways we attain, collect, collate and interpret data.

The most significant benefit digital spaces and particularly social media, present us is the ability to get into the heads of the audiences we are trying to reach. No longer are we forced to depend on the reinterpreted insights of third party research firms, or the costly and limited tasks of primary interviews or focus groups.

We have evolved fundamentally in the way we think of insight. Historically, analytics and insight would have been the cherry on the cake; a nice, and aesthetic addition. Now, insights and analytics have become the eggs. As an integral element, data-backed insight now binds all the other advertising ingredients together and guarantees the consistency and overall success of our campaigns. In this way analysts have begun breaking away from convention and reimagining our creative approaches, working strategically from ideation all the way through to completion.

What moves raw data to insight is the ability to connect and translate the information into practical next steps not only for clients, but internally as well. With the support of digital data on consumption practices, user journey, interests, search behaviour and demographics, we no longer have to make wild guesses on what audiences are excited about or how they behave. Now, we can systematically and almost scientifically calculate interest, forecast consumption by medium, create detailed segmentation and at the very least, point creative ideation in the right direction.

Moving Forward:

The continual separation of “creatives" and insight-based roles is antithetical to the overriding development of powerful, creative advertising. Opening the traditionally isolated “creative space" to data-minded professionals at the initial phases may create new questions and even new challenges, but it ensures that ideas start and grow with a deliberative approach.

Although we like to think of numbers as concrete and definitive, the truth is analysts are often exercising a type of creative flexibility that would rival any illustrator or photographer. Where a designer might consider multiple ways to present a print ad, analysts must decide how to approach a question, choosing which elements to tilt or emphasise, while simultaneously considering their impact on the bigger picture. They work to illustrate, visualise, deconstruct, and artistically weave multiple streams of data together to build something new and important. Someone's ability to turn blank pages in to beautiful illustrations is no less artistic than another's ability to translate numbers into living, breathing, and complex worlds of understanding. As such, any implication that insight development is non-creative comes from a misunderstanding of how in-depth mixed-methodological analysis is performed and reported on.

Creativity will remain at the core of the advertising industry for years to come, but it's time we rethink and restructure our approach. There is a shift underway, and now, companies with the loudest voices are being muffled by those with not only the best information, but the skills to translate it. A new form of creative ingenuity will pioneer the next wave of the digital revolution, and it starts and ends with knowledge.

Grace is the Insights & Analytics Manager at McCannBlue. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Ireland 6 years ago and she is currently completing her PhD at the Dublin City University School of Communications. Grace loves brunch, politics, and horror movies, but most of all, iced coffee.