Advertising is no longer a ‘petri dish of creativity’ – so the talent is going elsewhere, like to Apple

Marketers today are happier to trust the numbers than their gut and boardrooms are no longer temples to emotion, meaning the creative leaders are leaving the building to go where they will be more appreciated – argues adland stalwart and now GetCraft chief growth officer David Mayo

July 1 marked the first day of the second half of the year. Some companies are embarking on their new financial years. Cannes is over. Summer beckons and the advertising industry retains its hand-wringing quest for relevance.

Having said that, my general observation would be that like any good technology the less visible it is the better its design and functionality. And yet the ad agencies seem to continue their perennial debate about what to do about platforms, technology and data without ever really resolving the questions; or coming up with a new blueprint.

All the while, the one thing that puts them ahead – creativity – seems to be the least of their worries. If they simply got back to the business of creativity and let their work do the talking, they would get back to where they say they want to be.

There have been a few headlines recently about important creative people going to work at technology companies. But the commentary is all about ‘what made that happen’ and – other than a giant paycheque – there is no mention of the fact that creativity is not as important as it should be to marketers anymore. Therefore, agencies are not investing. The net effect is that people jump ship. They go and find places where their craft is wanted, appreciated and monetised.

There are several factors driving this. 

First of all, technology. Companies spend heinous amounts of money buying systems and stacks with blockchain-driven, algo-fed, fungible, plasma-sharded, hard-forked lightening networks that the system providers are very happy to supply and – more profitably – maintain. It’s all done in order that their companies can move at the speed of light and drive profits like never before. 

Next up is, creativity. You cannot see it, weigh it, quantify it or understand it. It has one job and if it doesn’t perform that job well, it goes. And yet marketers and agencies both know that creativity sells. 

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising has just published the Crisis in Creative Effectiveness report. Its content is sobering. That short-termism and the lack of interest in creativity is now showing in the financials. The mid-term effect of this, of course, will be more machines spewing out more Moonpig card-type ‘personalised’ messages to larger and larger audiences in the knowledge that if they spew on 10,000 internet users; well, then, at least five of them might be interested.

The longer-term effect of that is that we will learn better and quicker how to screen out the stuff that is machine-made, and with no affinity or love or respect.

In another part of the field, Forrester’s latest Customer Experience Index speaks about the creeping bland homogeneity, which shows that because of the lack of time, the hyper-accountability and the one-way approach to everything, differentiation – once the creative titan – is being radically diluted.

I have used a similar technique in pitches to tech companies, car clients and insurance brands by putting a reel together of industry sector advertising, as if to show the blandness of the landscape and ease by which a great piece of work would be able to cut through and deliver the killer punch. 

But it seems that marketers today are happier to trust the numbers than their gut. Boardrooms are not temples to emotion. And agencies – with less time and even less money to invest in strong creative leadership – suggest work ‘for now that will answer the brief’ and that they will focus on the brilliant stuff over time. 

The issue is, they never do. With the marketers foot firmly up the back of their pants and the finance director breathing down their necks on a weekly basis, there is no petri dish for creativity. There is nowhere for great ideas to flourish and grow, no room for trial and error.

And yet there is a ‘A/B testing’. It is a simple technique whereby you actually show the consumer different pieces of content and then screen for the one that gets the best response. So why can’t we do A/B testing to develop great creative work? Some things move more slowly in consumerland than others. Sales can be instantaneous, however, feelings and attitudes take time to build. As do brands.

Creativity is like a piece of cartilage in a knee joint that is wearing out faster than the bones it is designed to preserve, purely because – while everyone knows its there – nobody knows what it is and what to do with it anymore. There is an old Chinese proverb that says: ‘Just because a bee buzzes quickly, it doesn’t mean its busy. It just can’t buzz any slower.’ This is where we are today. The language, the body language and the boardroom language is around ‘speed at all costs’ and in this fury of activity left behind is creativity – and inadvertently, the brand.

Great work takes time. It breaks things. It hurts. But it works. Good marketers know that.

The guy that went to Apple [Nick Law, former Publicis chief creative officer] is either a visionary who feels the advertising industry has reached the tipping point or a singular example of what I have been talking about. But at the end of the day, as things are, he and his product will be better funded, appreciated and more effective where he is going than where he is coming from.

Mayo pines for the return of creativity

David Mayo is chief growth officer at the South East Asia marketing company GetCraft and is based in Singapore


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