I Hate 'Creative,' and You Should Too

The Word Is Now Being Used to Mean 'Not Strategic'

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Tom Denari
Tom Denari
Now that I have your attention, I really do hate "creative." It's not that I dislike creativity or creative people. In fact, I love it, and I work closely with truly creative people that inspire me on a daily basis. It's what's kept me in this crazy business for so long. But after two decades in advertising, I've come to hate the word "creative." What was once used to describe thoughtful and novel communications, to describe what we aspire to on a daily basis, the word "creative" has somehow devolved into a pejorative hammer -- a hammer that's often used to beat the life out of an idea into something that's anything but "creative."

When my agency was a much younger, smaller upstart group, the more established old-guard agencies in our local market would often give us the backhanded, dismissive compliment of being "really creative." It was as if the other end of the spectrum was "really strategic." They would try to paint their straight-forward, sometimes even pedestrian, work as "more strategic." (Ah, "strategic," there's another painfully misused word by marketers. But that's for another day.)

Over time, the industry has fed this notion by too often producing undisciplined work that has tainted what it means to be "creative." The meaningless way we discuss creativity in the media and the boardroom has poisoned marketers' perceptions of how to engage consumers. We are continually overusing and misusing the term "creative," stretching it to represent everything from the remarkable campaigns to the soulless advertising that gets by on being visually interesting to the self-indulgent and baseless advertising created only for creative accolades and personal portfolios.

And how many times are we going to have to read stories about whether "Creativity and Effectiveness Can Coexist?" These stories simply fuel the misperception and definition of what creativity should mean to both agencies and clients.

The crux of the issue is not whether there is tension between creativity and effectiveness. In fact, it would save a lot of trouble if we simply eliminated the word "creative" from our lexicon. If we did, the discussion would shift to a more productive discussion, focusing on engagement and effectiveness.

For instance, instead of the client asking, "Do we really need to be so creative on this one?" he would be forced to say, "Do we really need to engage the consumer on this one?"

Ridiculous? Maybe.

The cadre of marketers that don't think the message needs to be "creative" assume that the target audience is keenly attentive to whatever they have to say next. They argue the more direct the better. Unfortunately, we all know that's just not the case. Consumers are bombarded with thousands of messages daily that ask for their attention and their disposable income. The brands that find a way to break through, engage and connect with their audiences are the ones that have the opportunity to affect their behavior.

Instead of debating whether the work is "creative," clients need to start asking:

  • "Is the message surprising?"
  • "Does it play upon consumers' life experience?"
  • "Is it relevant?"
  • "Is it consistent with the brand's voice?"
  • "Is it believable?"
  • "Does it differentiate the brand?"
If we all can begin to look at how an agency's work will (or won't) engage a consumer, and focus less on whether its work is "creative," my guess is that the advertising will end up being more effective. And likely more "creative."

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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