Creativity Has to Be a CMO's Core Competency

Harley-Davidson's Top Marketer on How Not to Strangle Ideas and, in Turn, Business Results

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THEY'VE HAD WHAT IT TAKES: Personal creativity is present at the very top of successful businesses. Consider Virgin's Richard Branson, Mary Kay's Mary Kay Ash and BP Capital's T. Boone Pickens.
Photo credits (from l.): Gareth Cattermole, Pat Sullivan and Jensen Walker
Mark-Hans Richer
Mark-Hans Richer
So, I shot my mouth off at a Spencer Stuart CMO conference recently, wondering aloud why CMOs did not select "creativity" as a core competency for the successful CMO ("As If You Didn't Know By Now, It's About the Bottom Line for CMOs"). And as sometimes happens when spouting, Ad Age called me on it and asked me to back up my view. What I will do here is explain, but also expand on my view that creativity (without quotations needed) is as much a core skill set for a successful CMO as a results orientation. In fact, it may be the key differentiator between business success and failure.

My central premise: CMOs must have creativity in themselves, for the good of the business and their own teams. For the business, the CMO is a role that can add a central business skill to a leadership team -- creativity -- that their peers likely possess less of.

Consider how personal creativity is a key marker in many of the most successful businesses in the world today, and it is or was present at the very top (Steve Jobs, Phil Knight, Richard Branson, George Lucas, Eiji Toyoda, Mary Kay Ash, Walt Disney, Sergey and Larry ... hell, T. Boone Pickens is looking pretty creative lately). At Harley-Davidson, our Senior VP-Chief Styling Officer Willie G. Davidson himself is a creative mind (and artist) and one of the reasons for the health of our brand through his product design. And in advertising, of course, creativity is legend in the smartest and most consistently successful ad-business organizations (Bernbach, Reinhardt, Clow, Bogusky -- pick your generation).

Further proof: Consider those organizations that lose creativity at the top (fill in the blank with any founder-named agency whose founder is no longer running the operation and instead brought in "management") and you know what usually happens next. So, in a business without a creative CEO, if the CMO is offering just a more creatively attired version of Type-A skills like the CEO, chief financial officer or chief operating officer, the leadership team is missing key ingredients to its success.

Can't just order out
Let's consider the CMO-agency relationship. If a CMO hires an agency without his or her own intuitive creative sense for how that talent is best used, it's like having a baseball coach who's never played the game. Not much of a surprise, then, that when the results don't come the manager wants to get new players -- even though the manager won't know how to harness the new players either. And then eventually management wants a new manager (in keeping with that pesky two-year CMO tenure statistic Spencer Stuart keeps telling everyone about).
Mark-Hans Richer is senior VP-CMO of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. He previously served as director of marketing for Pontiac at General Motors. He also helped lead advertising and promotions at GMC and Chevy Trucks while at GM.
For top results, most agencies prefer a creative client who can shorthand the sometimes intuitive reasons why a powerful creative decision is indeed a good one, vs. a client that kills creativity through well-intentioned but soul-crushing over-analysis. That doesn't necessarily mean that all ex-agency account guys (like me, admittedly) qualify -- they must have creativity of their own, not just experience with trying to manipulate creative teams to deliver briefs on time and on budget.

Simply, a CMO can't just order out for creativity in the shape of an agency.

Because there are "four Ps" we are supposed to flex in our jobs, creativity cannot be limited solely to the purview of promotion. A CMO and marketing team must be creative in the other three as well, with some coordination and integration. Is your agency going to do this? You likely don't use them much for product, price or place. And if you think some creativity applied by your agency in promotion will fix the other three Ps, you are in serious violation of the laws of math (one out of four does not equal high probability).

OK, so maybe you're reading this and you know in your soul that even though you are a CMO or a future CMO, you really don't feel comfortable with that "creative stuff" -- you have an agency for that. You much prefer flexing your management skills, demanding results, setting processes and establishing rules, rather than flexing the sometimes obscure and unpredictable skill of creativity. Maybe you can't afford to look "creative" (in other words, foolishly less interested in the "real world" of results) in front of your CEO.

Well, my supposition is that creativity vs. results is a false choice and one that Jobs, Pickens and Reinhardt would find ridiculous, as should you. In fact, creativity has defined the most successful businesses so much that creativity must be considered a competitive advantage. It probably describes the engine of capitalism more than capital itself. Capital seeks good ideas, and good ideas come from creativity.

Fostering creativity
So how do you get some of that, even if you prefer to worship the gods of process and data?

The first step is simply to agree that creativity is a skill set as important as any in a CMO and in a business. Second, even creative CMOs cannot be the sole purveyors of creativity -- they must nurture it in their teams as well. Pushing and enabling a team to be more creative, and never letting them be afraid to take chances, is a high ROI skill, and the "I" in this case is not capital but simply your focus, encouragements and time.
Get creative
Capital seeks good ideas, and good ideas come from creativity. So how do you get some of that, even if you prefer to worship the gods of process and data?

Here are four steps to elevating effective creativity:
  1. Recognize its importance

  2. Nurture it internally

  3. Use it wisely, not weirdly

  4. Have some guts
The exponential effect is to build an environment that rewards creativity and risk that will also reward you and the business. However, if you must, go ahead and demand your stacks of weekly reports and dashboards, and carry around the big-zippered three-hole binder. But you'd better also demand that your team not simply report data, but create from it.

Third, creativity is to be used wisely, not weirdly. Using creativity wisely means not asking people to shoot off the wacko idea of the day in meetings or obtusely offering innumerable "what if" scenarios that will wear out your team. And it is not sending your team to "creativity camp" to make interpretive animal balloons. Tie your creativity to the highest needs of the business and focus it.

Finally, creativity as a weapon of business is underleveraged not for lack of ideas, but for lack of courage to use them or refusal to give up on them. Great ideas can be strangled in the crib by CMOs too focused on near-term issues or distractions less important to the long-term results of the business. "We don't have time for creativity" is not something you would ever hear in the most successful businesses.

If by reading this you come to believe that creativity is as important to the success of your business as your capital, and the CMO has the unique opportunity to deliver that value if he or she possesses creativity and some guts, then it's time to party (which is what CFOs and COOs think CMOs really are focused on anyway, so don't let them down).
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