Are you getting the creativity you’re paying for?

Are you getting the creativity you’re paying for?

Creativity. It’s a word we use a lot; everybody does. Creativity is in the news. It helps individuals, businesses and products differentiate themselves, get noticed and become remembered.

Creativity brings economic advantage too. It helps organisations prosper and keeps people employed. According to a recent government survey, the combined creative industries generate £76.9 billion to the UK economy. That’s impressive.

But why is it that, within the sector where it should be most prevalent, true creativity seems to be in such short supply?

Towards the end of last year I was invited to talk to a fascinating business. It’s a classic SME; turnover is in the tens of millions, it has good products and has a loyal workforce. For a long period in its past it was the industry leader, but in recent years it has suffered from competition from cut-price operators.

In a bid to reclaim its market position, it took a critical look at its products and systems, surveyed its customers (and listened to what they said) and began a process of renewal. The purpose being to reconnect with the market and make it aware that their products are as relevant today as they ever have been. Part of the overhaul included a re-brand.

That all sounds sensible enough, wouldn’t you agree?

When looking for a re-branding specialist, they commissioned a local creative agency to do the job. They believed it had the appropriate resources, skills and experience to carry out what is, after all, a complex task. They chose it in the belief that it was staffed with creative thinkers who would introduce a new way of communicating that would, in turn, help it recapture its market share.

But that has turned out to be a costly mistake. While the agency tweaked the logo, introduced a new typeface, built a new website and developed a set of brand guidelines, the client company looks and sounds pretty much the same as they did beforehand. And they’ve hardly won any meaningful new business.

The poor quality of analytical thought that the agency brought to bear, coupled with the mediocrity of the work they’ve produced, is quite alarming.

I’m not against creative agencies. Far from it. I’ve had the privilege to work with some. Those at the pinnacle of the profession are highly regarded for their expertise, they do the quality of work we mere mortals aspire to and they act as magnets for the very best talent.

But there’s a significant number of others plying their trade off the back of ‘creative services’ who serve a largely undemanding business community which doesn’t really understand the power of true creativity, nor how it can be used to competitive advantage. They’re the ones who invariably end up with generic work and, as a consequence, fail to realise their true potential.

That sounds harsh, I know. But I’m afraid it’s true.

What matters more than anything else in marketing is authenticity. Authentic businesses are able to differentiate themselves from the guy next door, irrespective of their field of activity. And this applies just as much to designers and ‘creatives’ as anyone else. Authenticity is honesty and those of us who work in design have a duty to describe ourselves honestly in exactly the same way that we advise our clients to do. If we don’t, and we fail to practice what we preach, we are simply demeaning ourselves, our services and the wider profession. And as a consequence, we lose the trust and respect of prospective clients and the business community.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been introduced to business people who, at some point during the conversation have said that they’ve ‘used people like me before’ and have been underwhelmed by the lack of results.

The root of the problem lies, I believe, within marketing itself, or at least within the ‘creative’ side of it, where the term creativity seems to mean different things to different people. Some folk take the view that drawing a straight line is creative; so is manipulating an image or moving things around a page. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that creativity is knowing when to draw, what to manipulate and where to position on a page. It’s about thinking, not doing. It’s a way of seeing possibilities and mentally processing solutions. And in the context of design, creativity is about approaching a problem from a different angle and finding a solution that doesn’t seem obvious.

There are two interesting sets of figures surrounding the creative industries. The first is from the Design Council which, after carrying out its last survey in 2010, found that there were 232,000 designers working in the UK. That was an increase of 29% from 2005. No figures have been released since, but it’s realistic to assume that the number has increased since then.

The second comes from within the industry itself. In research carried out in 2008/9 it transpired that only four per cent of all the marketing activity in the UK is ever remembered positively. Seven per cent of it has a negative response and the remainder is never remembered at all.

That’s astonishing. What it points to is that while more of us are working in design than ever before, the quality of work we collectively produce is plummeting. When you consider that clients are spending a total of £18 billion every year on marketing activity, there’s an awful lot of money wasted on work that is pointless and irrelevant. This seems to be borne out by the business I mention above.

My years in design have taught me a great deal. And among the things I’ve learned is that creativity is something you either have or you don’t. It isn’t something that can be taught and you won’t learn how to become creative by sitting in front of a screen or by reading articles. Truly creative people rarely regard themselves as creative at all. Instead, they often agonise over their work, thinking it’s never really quite good enough. The fact that their clients invariably disagree is broadly irrelevant to them. It’s that angst that drives them to want to make their next piece of work better than their last.

Edward de Bono, the psychologist who originated the term ‘lateral thinking’ once said that there are lots of people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists. That’s true.

Creative people, and creative agencies, are only creative when they produce creative solutions. If they don’t, everything is just fluff. And it seems that many businesses are wasting their money on it.

Could your business do with a touch of Bowie?

Could your business do with a touch of Bowie?

I was devastated to hear about David Bowie’s death. In fact to begin with I simply didn’t believe it, thinking instead that it was just another creative reinvention whereby he had killed himself off in the same way he did with Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke.

But, well, it’s true. And tens of thousands of words have already been written, and spoken, about his creative input and his legacy. I’m not going to add to those, except to say that I was, and still am, a Bowie fan. The first Bowie album I ever had was Hunky Dory, on cassette tape, back in 1972. I was a student at West Surrey College of Art and Design at the time, and Bowie’s music, and his strange persona, captured my imagination. I played that tape over and over again until it broke.

Looking back at how he started and where he came from, it seems to me that many small businesses could follow his example. There are tens of thousands of them in the UK alone. Many are one-man-bands, run by people who are damned good at what they do. A few of them are very good at promoting themselves too. But the truth is that most aren’t. For them, promotion is scary.

Bowie became a master of the art of self-promotion. He developed a stunning ability for it as his self-confidence grew. It helped, of course, that he had real talent, even at a young age. But he knew that that alone wasn’t enough. It never is. He realised that to become the pop star he wanted to be, he had to be different. And he was.

Now I’m not suggesting that if you’re an electrician just starting out you should paint a Bowie-esque lightning bolt across your face (but then maybe that’s not such a bad idea). But to be successful you are going to have to get noticed.

Somehow you’ve got to find a way of cutting through the noise and babble of all the generic ‘me too’ marketing messages that bombard every one of us a thousand times a day.

If you want to tick along, earn a living and pay the bills, you can. That’s pretty easy. And it’s fine if it’s what you want.

But if you’re more ambitious you’re going to have to think laterally, grasp the nettle and be prepared to genuinely differentiate yourself. A logo, business card and website won’t be enough.

You’re going to have to start thinking of yourself like Bowie did. He knew he would never appeal to everybody so he didn’t even try. He simply targeted a segment of society that he thought he could speak to. It happened to include me, and millions more like me.

So what am I getting at? Well if you’re not finding the customers you really want, or are struggling to promote yourself or your business effectively, maybe it’s time to step back and take a few tips from Bowie. Perhaps you should make some ch-ch-changes.

It will take some effort and single-mindedness but you never know where it could take you. And I might be able to help.