YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the last


…Continued from Part, the second.

Now that you’ve informed your buzzword CEO what Collaboration is actually about, you better catch them before they start tooting the horn of Empowerment.

This concept is spewed forth across the agency, with chunks sticking in the hair of juniors in all departments, like Jackson Pollock ate one of his own paintings right after a bad kebab.

When your CEO gets tired of making decisions all the time, putting out the infernal supply of fires, and dealing with employees’ problems – despite much of that being their actual job – ‘empowerment’ becomes their motto, their catch-cry, and their shield that allows them to run away into a ‘very important meeting’ where they usually end up discussing shoes for half an hour.

Like it’s mutant twin sibling Collaboration, also drooling from the lips of the poorly informed, Empowerment is often perceived as meaning “we can all make big decisions without needing approval, even though most of us are terribly inexperienced and on junior salaries! Yippee.”


It becomes a license for Account Executives to set up committee meetings to review the first round of concepts before the Chief Creative Officer has even seen them. It emboldens mid-level Planners to immediately stand up at that meeting and say “These are the two concepts we’re going to present to client” without even asking the CCO what his inestimable experience might recommend. It drives the Account Manager to sneak off alone to the client and present only the concept they like while disregarding the recommendations of everyone else, including those more senior.**


Empowerment should not be a dismantling of the agency hierarchy

Your agency’s org chart is laid out like a pyramid, with the most experienced individuals in their fields at the pointy top for a reason: they are responsible for the decisions which lead to the success, or failure, of the agency.  Empowerment is not the authority for everyone to behave like those at the top of the pyramid – the CEO, the CCO, the Chief Strategist or the Chief Client Officer – and make primary decisions without a career of experience to de-risk the result.

Empowerment is the endorsement to be part of the process. To not ask permission to be involved. To not wait to be invited into a collaborative moment. To feel free to express one’s own opinions. But all the while respecting the authority of senior staff and management, remembering that it is not a democracy and knowing where the buck stops.

It is also the charge for everyone to be stronger and more confident in their voice, to claim the right to the skill for which they were hired in the first place. Which reciprocally means also respecting the rights of others who were hired for their skills. Different skills. A healthy mix of voices in which NOT everyone is creative.

Everyone can have thoughts.
Everyone can have ideas.
Everyone can have creative ideas.

But not everyone IS creative.

Not everyone has the capacity to think laterally every minute of every hour of every day, solving complex briefs that connect the seemingly disparate elements of product, audience, time and place. Not everyone sees beyond the sheets of paper to the potentially beautiful and disruptively unique solution to the client’s business problem. Not everyone can do that constantly and consistently enough to be paid (well) for it.


Not everyone can be expected to produce an endless consciousness of imaginative and original ideas that are continually artistic, inspired, visionary or clever. Not everyone can endure the pressure and rigour of such an expectation.

Which is why those same people who flippantly remark “…but everyone is creative” are the first to fall back on “I don’t know, you’re the creative” when they encounter a particularly tricky brief, or their own idea falls flatter than Mr Pickles on the A40.

You can’t have it both ways.

Creatives would never dream of being an Account Director. They aren’t (usually) the kind of people to build and maintain complex business relationships on which a million-dollar retainer relies. That is a unique skill for a different type of person.

Creatives would never claim “everyone is strategic”, because they know their brains aren’t wired the same way as someone who can marry the psychology of consumer behaviour with the data of purchase mechanics. That is a unique skill.

Not everyone is capable of managing the finances of an account – or an entire business – with the mathematical precision to balance forecasts with actuals, while not over-promising and incurring the wrath of the holding company. Unique.

Not everyone is adept with rapidly eroding timelines against an ever-broadening production schedule. Skill.

Not everyone is able to see the code before it has flowed from their fingertips.

Not everyone is suited to navigating the ocean of legalities.

Not everyone is a career-managing, people person.

Not everyone is creative.

“Creativity” is the most valuable asset of professional Creatives. It is their brand. Its exclusivity is what sets Creatives apart. If our industry gets to the stage where Creatives no longer have that, the brand of Creativity is finished.

Imagine where your agency would be without specialist creativity. Or specialist planning, production, account management, finance, or development.

Accept your place within the engine of an advertising agency.

Your place is important and just as valid as everyone else’s, otherwise the agency wouldn’t have you in the first place. You are unique for what you bring to the table. That is your power.


Don’t trample on the unique skill-set of others. Praise it. Respect it. Draw upon it and use it, like Mars used Hershey’s chocolate (see Part, the second), to make yourself famous in your field.

In the beginning of this three-part treatise, I hypothesised this is why so many agencies struggle to breakthrough. They have been led to believe (usually by a CEO who once attended a conference in Barcelona) that their agency culture will be improved if everything thinks everyone is creative, everyone piles into a room together to collaboshite™, and everyone starts pretending they have the jack-of-all-trades skills from every specialist sphere to make decisions like a boss.

They end up diluting their agency’s skills, frustrating their specialists, disenfranchising their most senior staff, and dismantling the engine that relies upon many different parts doing their own specific thing – in unison. Ironically, and fatefully, they end up disempowering so many amazing people that the psychological walls rise in a turf war that kills any hope of teamwork.

Feel empowered to claim the right to your own specialist skill, to speak with authority on your area of expertise, and collaborate with others who have different specialist skills and areas of expertise. You have a lot to give to your agency: insights and information, viewpoints and opinions that others don’t have. You have a virtuosity of your own.

Because you are NOT creative.

And that is a good thing.



** All three of these things honestly occurred in an agency at which I once worked, as a result of mislaid ’empowerment’ and a belief that ‘everyone is creative’.

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the second


…continued from Part, the first.

Your CEO returns from a conference in Barcelona and starts banging the drum of ‘collaboration’. It will help us build a culture of working together and get to the great ideas faster. Because, after all, everyone is creative.

Meanwhile, in the back of their mind, they’re actually saying,

“I got caned for not meeting our quarterly forecast, so we need to reduce our project timelines, crunch billable hours together, get the work out the door sooner so we can move on to the next revenue source. Oh, and that’ll help us win some awards, right.”


Collaboration may overtly be the act (or culture) of working with others to produce something with a joint effort, but in the sense of business – improved workflow, shorter turnaround and better output – it is the act (or culture) of working with other skill-sets to produce something that is better, faster, bigger.

In an agency, it means producing something more effectively, more profitable, and more creative.

My favourite tale of collaboration in business is the story of M&Ms – the little candy-covered chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hand. They were the invention of Forrest Mars Snr, son of the Mars Company tycoon Frank C Mars with whom he had a fractious relationship, both personal and professional. Forrest was a visionary whose ideas for new products and global expansion were not readily accepted by his father, even though Forrest introduced the Milky Way and Mars bar to the old-man’s company.

Forrest’s latest confectionery concept was patented in 1941, and a small batch was produced to prove its viability, but he didn’t have the chocolate to mass-produce his amazing new product. The US Government’s implementation of war-time rationing gave complete control of chocolate to Mars’ rival confectioner – and then market leader – Hershey’s Chocolate. [queue: dramatic music]

Mars needed Hershey. So Forrest found a partner in Bruce Murrie, the son of Hershey’s President. He got a quick gauge of the young Murrie, working for Hershey’s in a mid-level role under the shadow of his eminent father who was bestowed the leadership by his mentor and best friend, the original Willy Wonker, Milton S Hershey himself.

Bruce was intrigued by Forrest’s little sample wrapped in his kerchief. Forrest even suggested to Bruce that they call the little chocolate beads ‘M&Ms’ to stand for ‘Mars and Murrie’. Partners.

The resulting handshake gave Forrest access to and endless supply of Hershey’s chocolate and the machinery that Milton had introduced to the US for making the best. They collaborated to produce what is now one of the world’s leading confectionery products.


Each brought their own specific purpose to the joint venture, and each brought their own specific wants. Mars had a revolutionary idea and ingenious technique that would see him step out of his father’s shadow, but he needed chocolate and machinery. Murrie had chocolate and the means of production, but needed a breakthrough idea that would see him step out from his father’s shadow.

Each collaborator understood what they uniquely had, and what they could gain from combining these individual assets. Joining forces for a common (and selfishly personal) goal.

Back to that agency CEO banging the drum about ‘collaboration’ for producing better work: what they are trying to say is that by better combining our unique skills and individual assets the agency will produce better work.

Unfortunately, it is often poorly explained and misinterpreted agency-wide as: “Let’s all jump in a room together and brainstorm because everyone is creative! Yippee.”



The first step to collaboration, as both Forrest and Bruce knew, is to recognise your unique asset and respect the unique assets of others. Know what you bring to the table, and accept what others will bring to the table. Know what you want to get from your collaborators that you could not do yourself.

The very notion that everyone is bringing “creativity” to the table either means you have nothing unique to bring, or you have all the same type of people in the room.

If you have nothing unique to bring, you shouldn’t be there. Unless you’re subconsciously admitting no-one has anything unique to bring, a bunch of monkeys could probably solve this, and therefore it’s probably not a big enough challenge to require the multiple billable head-hours gathering in a room together in the first place.

Alternatively, if you have all the same type of people in the room, then you don’t have a complementary mix of skills and you’re wasting multiple billable head-hours by arriving at the same solution that one or two people could have conceived at the pub, far quicker and cheaper.

Collaboration is the joining of interdependent and distinctive assets to provide differing viewpoints and thoughts toward a unified solution that, ideally, is better than any solution that could come from a single viewpoint.

It requires people from different but inter-related disciplines. Creatives, Strategists, Business Managers, Technologists, Producers, or whatever. Not everyone can represent ‘creative’.

Each collaborator must leverage their own discipline to provide suppositions that shed light from alternative angles.

Each collaborator must also respect the lights from others.

And in doing so, respect that those lights come from different disciplines.

Sometimes a creative one, that can shine upon your light and make something even brighter.


The collaborative discussion (read: debate) with a colleague that inspired this treatise, inevitably included the defence that there’s a difference between saying “everyone is creative” and “everyone is A Creative.” True dat. But as with telling Usain Bolt “everyone runs” rather than “everyone is a Professional Runner” (see ‘Part, the first’), the notion of claiming any sort of athletic equivalence within the context of his professional environment is extremely dismissive of his athletic ability and prowess.

Within an agency environment, where there are people employed solely for their creative ability and prowess, it is as equally dismissive to say “everyone is creative” as it would be to say “everyone is A Creative.”

The phrase, even though it is supposedly disarmed as a more generalised statement, is still a declaration that “everyone can do what Creatives do.” That to be creative is not a unique skill that others rely on. That the work relies on. That the agency could fire every single professional Creative and instead bring in a teenager, that guy who hangs around the supermarket toilets, your mother, and a walrus. Because, after all, “everyone is creative.”

It is often said when ideas need to be rapidly formulated:

“Just grab a bunch of people to crack this fire brief.
After all, everyone is creative”

or when someone in management thinks the only way to make the whole agency feel part of the process is to homogenise:

“Remember, people: ideas can come from anywhere. Everyone is creative.”

In both instances, the speaker is attempting to boost the morale of the staff by assigning them with a positive quality, hoping to foster a creative culture by merely telling people they are imbued with that desired attribute. Sadly, it seems many believe all it takes to be creative is that someone has told them they are.

Unfortunately, in both instances, the claim (and pursuant self-belief) is actually that one of the specialist skills that has flourished in our industry, our agencies, isn’t a specialist skill anymore. Everyone can do it. It’s not innate, it’s not learned, it’s not practiced and honed. It’s naturally within us all, like breathing, eating, shitting. Or running, writing, flying. Or, closer to home, planning, producing, managing.

And if the specialist skill of creativity isn’t specialist anymore, what’s to stop any specialist skill becoming genericised too? What would a former Planner, Producer, Account Manager, or Developer be valued for if everyone else could do what they do. Or what you do.

Because you are NOT creative.


Continue to the third part, in which we emancipate empowerment to see how it should, and shouldn’t, work.  And why it’s linked to the misperception “…but everyone is creative.”

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the last

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the first


I had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day that gets to the heart of why so many advertising agencies struggle to break through. And it started with her saying that little catchphrase we’ve all heard:

“…but, everyone is creative.”

Those four little words contain so many powerful sentiments, they are an earthquake that shakes the very foundation of our industry. They are misplaced, misrepresentative, offensive and ignorant. That little phrase is dismissively hurtful and an egregious chimera.

Because it says so much.

It says that we have devalued creativity to the point where we no longer think it is a skill. While the industry still quotes Bernbach and Ogilvy, applauding these giants for revolutionising advertising with the miracle of creativity, and simultaneously championing the tech inventors who have revolutionised our digital world, the storytellers who fill us with awe, we have slipped into a miasmic coma in which we believe everyone – particularly those who utter the phrase – is just as creative as each other.

It says that many in our industry (and possibly the world at large) don’t actually know what the word ‘creative’ means. Firstly, it’s quite telling that we use it as a noun for any piece of work that is produced. “Show me the creative,” says the Account Manager. “It’s a shitty email template, my friend,” the Art Director thinks (because he’s too damn polite to utter the words aloud).

When did we start calling the mundane minutiae of our business by a word that was once reserved for the ideological goal of our business? Creative actually means “relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas.

Not every piece of work produced in an ad agency is related to or involves the use of the imagination or original ideas. Accept it. That’s why we have terms like “business-as-usual”. BAU is a far more appropriate and acceptable nomenclature. That shitty email template needs to be done, it’s part of our business, a common fixture, usual. But it is not creative.

I know we have an entire sphere of roles within ad agencies – myself included – that go by the noun ‘creative’, but that is a modernised truncation of it being an adjective in a longer and more descriptive title like Creative Director and Creative Department – one who directs creativity and a department that produces creativity.

Traditionally, and thankfully still to this day, the Creative Director was so named because he (or she if she’s in the miserably tiny 3%) oversaw, managed and made the ultimate decisions on the output of those within his Creative Department – Artworkers, Copywriters, Graphic Designers – which was described as creative work, or the creative output. The creative product. The creative solutions. The creative use of an adjective to describe the quality of work, output, product or solution.

Somehow and at some point, this collective of specialist skills were unified under the adjectival noun ‘creative’. That was acceptable, because indeed these people were in fact creative by nature, definition, profession, and talent.

It should have stopped there. But it didn’t.

Over time, the adjectival noun started to lose it’s meaning as a descriptor and began being applied to anything and anyone who perhaps even held for a moment something that might have once started out as creative.

Like Xerox, Hoover and Taser, the term became genericised. And once that happens, it loses all meaning of its quality and uniqueness. Those brands suffered tremendous losses as a result of their trademark names being popularised. Xerox even ran ads with the sole purpose of trying to claw back their brand.


BBC Business Reporter, Simon Tulett, wrote:

“It may seem like a fairly innocuous linguistic slip to confuse brand and product – indeed, you might think it a compliment to the company behind such a successful name – but it could be the sign of a brand in its death throes.”

Death throes? Uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good.

But it might be apt. With everyone using the word ‘creative’ to passively describe the work that no-one in their right mind, including the client, would actively and consciously describe as “creative”, aka imaginative and original, or even artistic, inspired, visionary or clever, then we are establishing that shitty email template as the benchmark of creativity. Once that becomes the barometer of originality and imagination, then it’s easy to see why non-creatives like to think “everyone is creative”. Because they think they can do shitty emails too.

Worse, they think that’s what our industry aspires to creatively.

“If consumers understand the trademark to be the name of the product itself, as opposed to identifying its exclusive source, that trademark loses its distinctiveness,” writes Tulett.

Creatives have lost their distinctiveness. Their stock in trade has been diluted. Their specialist skill devalued. Their purpose and expertise has been commodified.

If you say “…but everyone is creative”, then you’re saying you don’t need Creatives. They don’t matter. They are no longer of any use.

But if you can do it, if everyone can do it, then why are Creatives still here?

Because those four words are an outrageous lie.

I’m not saying that in the broad context of being a human that you’re not creative in some capacity. In that context, yes, everyone has the ability to be imaginative, have original thought, be artistic, inspired, visionary or clever.

But in the context of our jobs, our professional skills, that thing we each get paid for… NO, you are not creative.

It is like saying “… but everyone can account manager”. No, they can’t. That is a particular skill that is learned and developed (for the good ones, at least) over the course of that person’s career. Not everyone is an Account Manager, or a Developer, a Designer, a Financial Controller, Photographer, Chef, or Athlete.

Only a complete ass would approach Usain Bolt after he sprinted 100m in 9.58 seconds and say “…but everyone can run”.


While technically a statement of somewhat wobbly correctness – everyone can run – Usain has done it far better (and obviously faster) than anyone else. He’s not the fastest man on Earth without reason. In the world of athletes, he matters. He is talented. His innate physical composition led him on a path of years of hard work and experience, honing his skill, to be better at something than everyone else. While everyone may run, not everyone is a Runner.

It would be an immense disrespect to say such a thing to Usain.

Sure, your typical advertising Creative may not be the “creativest man/woman on Earth”, but their innate physical* composition led them on a path of years of hard work and experience, honing their skill, to be better at something than everyone else.

Even those professional athletes who aren’t top in their field – aren’t Usain, or Serena, or Phelps – are still better at their skill than almost everyone else. James Patterson, Agatha Christie, J.D. Salinger are better at writing than almost everyone else, which is why, even though you can string words together in sentences, perhaps you cannot write.

Advertising seems to be the only industry that wants to genericise a core skill across different members of the team. Imagine if your heart surgeon stepped back mid-aortic-splice because the anaesthetist suggested “…but everyone is surgical.” Try knocking on the cabin door at 38,000ft and asking them to give the steward a crack because “everyone can fly”. After all, the steward is indeed flying, probably even knows what some of the buttons and levers in the cockpit do. But they would never presume to be a pilot.

In the context of advertising agencies, among an amazing mix of professions, all specialists with their own skill-sets formed from a physical* composition that led them on a path of years of hard work and experience, it is an affront to say “…but everyone is creative” – or any other specialist skill that defines different roles within an agency.

What is most perplexing is this misplaced sentiment is espoused by the same industry – even the very same individuals – who also stand on the soap-boxes of Collaboration and Empowerment.

These two managerial concepts, the new axioms of the advertising landscape, are wildly fallacious or misemployed at best. In practice, both ideals conflict with the notion that “everyone is creative”.

Continue to the second part, in which we collectively focus on collaboration to see how it should, and shouldn’t, work.  And why it’s linked to the misperception “…but everyone is creative.”

YOU ARE NOT CREATIVE: Part, the Second


* I say “physical” composition because the brain is an organ comprised of a set of physical parts and chemistry that work together in ways as individual as each person: sometimes forming a human who is innately adept at numbers, sometimes a human who is innately adept with interpersonal relationships, sometimes a human who is innately adept at lateral thinking. Science.