Do We Need a New Definition of Creativity?

In Today's Digital World, the Answer Is Yes

By Published on .

Ana Andjelic
Ana Andjelic
There's an inevitable moment in most ad industry disagreements in which a creative demands, "Let's see your portfolio." The translation is often: What have you actually done? I mean, what have you ever made? The divide is between the people who make stuff (aka creatives) and the people who talk about stuff (aka strategists). The former hold sway while the latter have no standing when it comes to creative matters.

It's symbolic of a big problem facing advertising's creative class as it adjusts to the digital world.

The creativity of the digital world is vastly different from the analog environment. There, creative is typically a static commercial art piece (or a "portfolio" of these). Creativity represented by great copy, an idea that makes a twist on a popular culture or "captures the zeitgeist," or as a piece-of-art logo and print ad, may indeed belong to the same era as those media that defined it.

In the digital world, that approach doesn't cut it. The best creative is the creation of relationships, connections and interactions. It connects tools with behaviors, locations, and objects. It creates networks or systems. To be creative there, you need to be strategic: you need to figure out who connects to whom, when and why and to what result. Simply, you need to plan for a chain reaction. These networks then give way to a collective creativity that becomes visible to all to use it, build upon it, change it, and add to it. In the same way the concept of the "lone inventor" turned out to be a myth and the concept of "big idea" turned out to be hoax, the notion of "big name" in advertising may turn out to be a fake.

A single "advertising genius" holds no chance against the bulk of digital everyday people who make their creative talent visible -- and available -- the moment they turn their computer on. Worse yet, their focus on coming up with witty, funny, pretty or smart piece can turn out into a liability: this is not a templated world. Thinking bound to 30 seconds or 50x100 pixels or any other given frame is destined to fall short. For the ad solution to be successful, it needs to fit with the network and fit seamlessly with what people are already doing, talking about, and acting upon.

The advertising world has been slow to grasp this notion of strategic creativity simply because it's not what it does well. In fact, the best examples of digital creativity -- no offense, Old Spice Guy -- aren't from agencies at all. Think Janeen McCrae's "Yes, I am Precious" project, Bud Caddell's Bucket Brigade, Casey Halverson's Nike Foursquare check-in combo, or just about anything that springs out of 4Chan and bubbles up on BuzzFeed.

With all this collective creativity connected in a network, what to do with a handful of creatives holding the fort in ad agencies? As Edward Boches told me on Twitter the other day, "the most interesting stuff has been done with individuals: Lemonade, Uniform Project, Vaynerchuck -- all better than brand farts." We pay attention to them because they are doing something new, interesting, fun and meaningful. And because no one knows where a good idea is going to come from, it's silly to limit this to the creative team.

Ironically, advertising's creative class needs strategists in order to find their way in the digital world. Those strategists once dismissed as "talkers, not doers," are just as vital to creativity as the guys in the ironic T-shirts who dream of bellying up at the Gutter Bar in Cannes. Or, as leadership consultant Warren Bennis put it, "there are two ways to be creative. One can sing. One can dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers flourish." At the end of the day, to create something needs both.

Ana Andjelic is a freelance strategist and did her Ph.D. dissertation on digital branding. You can follow her thoughts at I [love] marketing, where this piece was originally posted.

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