Fresh Perspective on Creativity Is Path to Ad Industry's Future

But Who's Going to Set the Parameters

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
If you really want to discover how little you know about anything, try preparing to talk about it in front of your peers. It's humbling. All those brilliant ideas swimming around in your head look depressingly flat and pedestrian when you put them down on paper. Flashes of insight into the business wind up looking like a bad Twitter feed from a social-media guru.

This week, I need to moderate a panel of speakers in New York who know a lot more than me. I've been stumbling around, quizzing my friends, browsing through the agency library and looking for inspiration. Maybe you can help.

Here's the back story. As a board member of the Business Marketing Association of New York, I volunteered to help my friend Nader Ashway launch a speaker's series called BMA EDGE that would look at significant trends in BtoB marketing. Last year, we covered all the usual topics from the convergence of social networks to mobile-content strategies. This time around we wanted to move away from technology and look at other important influences that have begun to change the face of advertising.

So, we settled on creativity. I know, how is creativity a trend? Creativity has been the fuel of advertising since the 19th century. Nothing, however, stays the same forever. Just as conceptions of art change with every technological and social shift, the same is true for advertising. What worked for Da Vinci wouldn't have worked for Picasso. I suspect that in the race to master digital, social media, mobile, CRM systems, content strategies, and crowdsourcing, many of us have not redefined the creative opportunities that lie ahead. What a waste to be a visionary on all the new marketing innovations without also updating your creative philosophy.

I've got to give some credit for this topic to my new friend, and Ad Age blogger, Derek Walker, an unapologetic defender of the fundamental role of creativity in advertising. During one of our spirited video Skype discussions, I argued that most of the creative products that agencies produce, namely ads in all their forms -- print, digital and broadcast -- have become commodities with decreasing value to clients. This, in turn, has created downward pricing pressure and explains why a lot of agencies struggle to make enough money to flourish. I concluded that producing creative products was no longer the critical role of an agency and would have to be replaced with other services.

Well, we should all reserve the right to be wrong, and I've decided that I was wrong. What has been commoditized is not creativity; it's the misguided application of creativity in the context of communications that no longer hold any power to move us. Let's not just pick on print ads and broadcast spots. Twitter -- at first a life-altering platform -- has become a noisy channel full of self-promotion and one-way broadcasting that's as bad as any of the worst old-school marketing.

Hey Derek, I've completely changed my tune, and if there is a bright future for advertising, I'm convinced that it's a fresh perspective on creativity that will lead the way. The changes are already in the works.

Today, we accept the conventional wisdom that good ideas can come from anywhere and are no longer the domain of the creative department. We've expanded our vision for what constitutes a creative idea to include social engagement and any form of experience that occurs between a brand and a person. What's most exciting is that we've moved away from a narrow definition of creativity to one that is expansive and literally encompasses the entire world of ideas.

To understand what creative thinking and creative products may look like in the future, I invited three very different people to talk at our upcoming BMA EDGE event: Claudine Cheever, chief strategy officer for Saatchi & Saatchi; Harry West, CEO of Continuum, an expert on the discipline of Design Thinking; and Susan Westre, executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather. All three wrestle with the role of creativity and how to manage it in today's environment, and all three have strong opinions.

I've got no idea if any of the speakers will agree with my point of view, and I'm not sure it matters. When it comes to public speaking, I've always believed it's more important to be thought provoking than right. We're talking about advertising after all. I'm defining success as a provocative conversation that makes someone think.

I'd be curious to know what questions readers of this blog would ask these speakers. Share your questions, and I'll make sure to report back on the responses.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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