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.
“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.”