The battle for the best ideas starts with rethinking the creative process

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Credit: Illustration by Michael F Di Ioia

With Procter & Gamble, Unilever and United Airlines joining the growing list of companies leaving agencies to fold marketing functions in-house, voices all across the agency world have wondered aloud: What gives?

Often, those conversations center on why brands are leaving, but that's not the conversation we need to have. As more companies have taken creative in-house, we've lost sight of the real issue: How the best creative ideas come to be.

There have been some fundamental shifts in where creativity originates, but much of that conversation has gotten wrapped up in a false dichotomy between agencies and in-house marketing teams. Agencies cannot lament the slow migration of creative work to internal teams. Instead, we need to reconsider how we view creativity and stop trapping our partners behind insurmountable communication barriers.

As alien as it sounds, that means focusing less on pitching new ideas and more on coming up with better ones in the first place.

Degumming the creative process

It shouldn't matter whether creative talent works at an agency or in-house.

Brands today need creative partners that can let go of old processes and values and frankly, many agencies haven't changed quickly enough to meet that need. (Indeed, when prompted to identify troubling industry trends, a 2017 survey by RSW/US found that brand marketers believe legacy agencies are still stuck on "old media.") Many high-level creatives only feel free to exercise their full potential in-house because those positions empower them to abandon the stodgy agency life of peer reviews.

To that end, we must rethink how we structure our creative teams. Often, a concept that begins as brilliant ends up diluted by too many inputs and approval barriers. Yes, eliminating approval processes means some ideas will flop harder than usual, but it also frees the greatest ideas to soar unhindered.

When ideas get lost in drawn-out processes, so does the incentive for creativity.

A new creative structure

In my experience, nonlinear teams composed of members from multiple disciplines are better able to meet the needs of today's brands. In diverse teams, low-level marketers don't see their ideas twisted as they rise upward: Anyone can propose a brilliant idea and see it through to completion.

In-house teams and agencies alike struggle to operate outside traditional organizational structures, yet break down those structures we must. It's not about eliminating processes altogether; it's about prioritizing processes that yield the best results, even when they fly in the face of traditional marketing wisdom.

So form multidisciplinary teams—of creatives and non-creatives—and give them more freedom than ever. Outside the regimented structure that agencies and in-house teams traditionally impose, these teams can blend brutal simplicity and radical creativity to discover, not force, the brand truths people care about.

Teams should feel empowered to reach the best ideas together. That means loosening the reins on cumbersome approval processes. True, they sometimes prevent major mistakes, but they almost always turn great ideas into blander, tamer versions of their more vital selves. We don't need more input; we need more risk.

Sometimes, that final approver—be it the client or the internal stakeholder—initiates the watering down. We can't stop that from happening, but we can stop presenting those gatekeepers with ideas that have already been dissected beyond repair.

No team, in-house or otherwise, is immune to dilution in the creative process. Brands that leave don't necessarily want to sever ties, but they can't afford to maintain the status quo when bolder, bigger ideas are the only way to stand out.

Creativity is a process—not a product—and it deserves the freedom to think and imagine.

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