What is Creativity – in Digital?

I want to share this ongoing debate about creativity and what it means in digital aka eMarketing. There is good material on creativity in brand communications in the free downloads section of this site. In ‘Persuasive and Creative Brand Comms’ you can hear the views of the best brains in the business – Hegarty, Wight, Wieden, Shelly Lazerus and many more. There is lots of discussion about how to develop outstanding creative but a fair consensus about what creativity means. It is a fresh idea that will inspire a wide range of great communications to an agreed objective (let’s just say, building the brand). It is art but it is, as John Hegarty says, applied art and not art for art’s sake.

Tempting to think it is no different for eMarketing. Creativity means having a great digital idea that is relevant to a brand or business brief. Well maybe…

In advertising there is a case to be made that the agencies regarded as the most creative – the hot shops – can often be stronger on the ‘fresh idea’ than they are on being effective in achieving a business or brand objective. Some will argue that’s fine because fresh is what makes it effective – good creative cuts through the clutter and makes the brand being advertised distinctive. Being seen, heard, talked about creates momentum, and that plus distinctiveness are key drivers of brand growth. This is not just faith, it can be proved although not perfectly so and not in real time.

In eMarketing there is a version of the same debate. So called ‘creative digital agencies’ translates as “eye catching web sites with lots of flash”. In fact there is an expression among digital agencies for this – “eye-candy”. I guess ‘candy’ is a reference to the fact that it may taste sweet but it is not so good for you. In eMarketing there is no escaping measurable results. It is not the same debate, as in conventional advertising, that good looking creative may not necessarily be as effective. Eye-candy can actually get in the way of effectiveness if site usability suffers and search engines can’t find you (to use flash as one simple example). In advertising you can believe that an idea that is “too creative” i.e. really strong and original, can get in the way of the brand. An example would be Bud’s “What’s up” campaign – won all the awards but did not do much for the brand, if anything it dumbed it down. But in digital you can show that, for example, a great looking site or innovative brand game download, achieved appallingly low visits, click throughs, usage etc and that the ROI was therefore terrible.

There is no reason not to strive for great design, a distinctive look and feel, fresh eye-candy, but effectiveness in achieving pre-specified and measurable results is the absolute priority.

All agencies want to be seen as effective and creative, the best want to show that they are effective because they are creative. With less by way of hard data but more in terms of years debating this, advertising has achieved some kind of consensus about what is meant by ‘creativity’. Not so digital agencies. By creativity, do we mean:-

A Big On-Line Idea?
Creative use of technology?
Creative use of eMarketing tactics (site, social media, email, gaming, content, apps etc)
Creative design – the eye candy?

The answer is yes, we mean all of that, and it is judged by hard data not a panel of experts in Cannes.

In fact, in digital, strategic, original and effective are all aspects of ‘creativity’.
Let’s pause for a moment and look at different routes to an effective creative idea. By effective I mean an idea that solves a problem or realizes an opportunity – applied creativity.

Based on what I’ve read, there are 4 sources of an idea:-
•    Inverse Logic
•    Connectivity
•    Reduction
•    Peacocks

Inverse Logic is what I think of when I think of Edward De Bono. Problem = my car lock is frozen. I try pouring hot water on the lock to unfreeze it but it just pours ineffectively down the side the car. De Bono pitches up and suggests I heat the key with my lighter.

Inverse logic is about turning the problem on its head, seeing it from a different angle, challenging the assumptions that people make. Rather than use the internet to sell people things more things efficiently, why not allow people to sell things to each other more efficiently (eBay). That kind of an idea.
Connectivity is forming new connections by using a variety of stimulus to create a new idea or solution. Peroni uses the language of luxury style brands to sell beer. Smirnoff Ice uses beer codes to sell pre-mixers.
Reduction is where an idea comes by seeing though all the clutter to some pure essence or insight at the heart. Innocent Smoothies, EasyJet, Magnum Ice Cream. (Was it Michelangelo who just chipped away at a block of stone to reveal the sculpture contained within?)

Peacocks are all about elaborate and exaggerated display – they survive as a species despite being one of the most impractical birds of all time because Peahens look at them and go “Wow, how good must his genes be?”. Gaultier perfume bottles, Honda’s Power of dreams, Cadbury’s Gorilla.

Not only am I mixing brand ideas with creative problem solving and communication ideas but I am implying that ideas come from one of these sources. It is much messier than that. Peroni, the brand and its communications, are inverse logic, new connections, reductive thinking and peacock display all rolled into one.

So creativity comes in to a lot of things and comes from a variety of techniques and inspiration. But it starts with a problem or opportunity.

That problem/opportunity needs to be interrogated, challenged, discussed, so it can be redefined in such a way that a successful idea can be recognized and successful implementation can be related to milestones and results.

This process – which can take a year or an hour  – sets up the possibility of having an idea by challenging assumptions or by seeing through all the issues to a pure solution. The process of defining the problem allows you to apply new stimulus, new combinations of elements to create something fresh and original.

In digital there is always some new stimulus in the form of new technology or the application of existing technology in a new way.

The process of reducing the problem to clear outcomes promotes reductive thinking as a source of ideas.
Understanding the components of the idea, and new components you can add, may offer the chance to elaborate and exaggerate.
The thinking up front is the foundation for creative thinking – or is it strategic thinking – or is all great strategy creative in the sense of being bold, unexpected, selective, forming new connections?

Strategy relies on developing options  – no choices means no strategy. The process of generating options from which to choose a strategy, especially bold, selective, fresh options, is essentially creative.
This may sound overly complex but surely in order to be more creative we need to explore what we mean by creativity. It leads me to the conclusion that creative strategy is strategic creative. The kind of thinking and processes (essentially questioning) that one associates with strategic thinking seems to me to be the basis of creative thinking.

In digital, the introduction of technology and numerical goals at the outset of the process, ensures fresh thinking that is applied to a problem – applied creativity.
What about the creative design – the execution, what it actually looks and feels like? Design creativity in marketing normally falls into two disciplines:-
Product design – the Dyson Vacuum Cleaner, the iPod
Graphic Design – the logo, the pack, the web site, the identity (and as soon as you introduce the notion of identity you link product and graphics).
In digital it is always product and identity – how it looks and how it works. Because of the strongly empirical aspect of digital – we can test things and we can measure a lot relatively easily – usability always trumps look and feel. Is amazon a great looking site or a really effective site (ditto Twitter, Google, Facebook etc)?

Designers have two great skills – one that is art and one that is craft. They can introduce new semiotic codes to create fresh design. Semiotic is a fancy word that means cultural or ‘what we have come to expect’. We expect a car to look a certain way, financial services to use certain colours and graphic conventions, beer to have certain traditions. The skillful, artful designer respects some of the rules and breaks others by introducing some new design element borrowed, consciously or not, from another category or walk of life. They then craft this into a form that is aesthetically pleasing in an extremely detailed way. Every element of a typeface, every shade of colour, every line and shape is carefully considered and tinkered with until it just looks just right in the context of an overall design that is effective and creative.

Digital designers do the same but like all early adopters of technology they emphasize function over form. Look at cars, computers, phones, watches several years ago and look at them now.

First it has to work, then we can make it aesthetically pleasing. If form does not compromise function but rather it enhances it we have the Holy Grail – we have Apple, Dyson, Porsche

Well this is as far as I have got in this debate but I am still asking questions. In digital, creativity is:-

•    An idea that solves a problem
•    Strategic and creative and effective
•    Form and function
•    New combinations of tactics, applications, content and other digital assets
•    Peacock, aesthetic and functional design
•    It embraces technology and data as stimulus right upfront
•    It is an attitude of mind, an orientation, not a step in the process

It is worth debating all this if it helps us understand a) how to make effectiveness the result of creativity not the trade off and b) organize our teams and our processes to increase the chance of this happening.

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