Creatives' worst nightmare: Cannes-crashing only the start

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You can't convince me that Procter & Gamble's A.G. Lafley wasn't frustrated serving on the board of General Motors. Everything Mr. Lafley fervently believes about the design and creative process is the opposite of what GM believes.

At GM engineering is king, and engineers dictate how to build cars in the most efficient manner without much regard for whether consumers want to buy them. P&G, of course, produces what consumers want to buy.

Mr. Lafley resigned from the GM board earlier this year but continues as a member of the General Electric board. He and Jeff Immelt, the head of GE, sound like soulmates when they rhapsodize about the role of creativity within their corporations and in the marketplace.

"When the history of the transition from the Knowledge Economy to the Creative Economy is written these two will probably get most of the credit," Business Week said in a special report called "Get Creative." The magazine noted that Messrs. Lafley and Immelt meet regularly, talk about creativity and exchange notes.

I can imagine Mr. Lafley having the same sort of conversation with GM's Rick Wagoner, but the difference is Mr. Wagoner would have a much more difficult time putting innovation to work at GM. Ditto Bill Ford at Ford Motor Co.

At P&G, designers work directly with R&D staffers to help conceive new products, according to BW. "This changed P&G's entire innovation process, making it consumer-centric rather than driven by new technology," the magazine said.

In contrast, when Ford moved Lincoln-Mercury to California "to soak up the culture that has made this state America's trendsetter," according to Automotive News, they were viewed as "those crazies in Irvine" by Ford people back in Dearborn. "There was a lot of jealousy and disdain from the mother ship. We were exposed out in California," one executive told our automotive newspaper.

So how do you get the rank and file to buy into innovation? Mr. Immelt told his managers "to connect with consumers, learn to take risks, and place big bets," BW said. To push the corporate culture to encourage creativity he created the position of CMO in charge of generating innovation and creativity.

One of the major impediments to a more creative environment is the notion that creativity is not a serious enough activity for grownups. Even Beth Comstock, who holds the aforementioned title at GE, thinks of herself as "a little bit of the crazy, wacky one. ... Creativity is still a word we're wrestling with. It seems a bit undisciplined," she told BW.

Companies like GE and P&G and 3M and Apple want everyone in the company to tap into their creative sides, yet advertising agencies have always fostered the idea that only the people who write ads are the creative ones. And the creative people at ad agencies revel in being strange and eccentric people.

Often creative people resent the suits for trying to horn in. Jeff Goodby was quoted in our own Creativity that it was "terrible" that clients crashed their party at Cannes.

If creativity is going to be thought of as either something frivolous performed by a bunch of kooks or as something that needs to be nourished and mystified so the process won't be demeaned by outsiders, it makes it much harder to get corporate America involved.

As the head of the new D-school at Stanford told BW, "The final ingredient in design strategy is building an organization process" that includes components like observation and storytelling on a continuing basis. "You can build a kind of culture of routine innovation through design thinking."

Routine innovation. Now there's a phrase that needs to be put to rest as an oxymoron.

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