Recently, there has been discussion around the exodus of senior creative talent from ad agencies and other companies due to perceived lack of “fun.”
My view? Grow up. Business is not about creative self-actualization for its own sake. And marketing, in particular, is not about “fonts and colors.” Don’t get me wrong, creativity is perhaps the key attribute most needed and desired to address our 21st century business challenges. Indeed, it’s what drives my job function and motivates me daily as CMO at a technology company. It’s my job to take our company’s IT innovation and transform it into visible business value. But this attitude of: “it” (advertising and marketing) is just not fun anymore or it’s not worth my creative genius is short-sighted. In my opinion, this attitude is why a lot of people in marketing don’t get the respect they need or deserve.
Yet while creative ad and marketing types are running for the agency door, CEOs are looking for more creative minds, begging the question: Is creativity depreciated or simply misunderstood? In a recent IBM research study, CEOs from around the world cited “the rapid escalation of complexity” as the biggest challenge confronting them and their organizations. These same CEOs identified creativity as “the single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path through this complexity.” Marketing and creative types who bemoan their roles and their perceived value are missing a unique opportunity and invitation to lead. Creativity, after all, is not valued as an end itself but a critical means to that end.
Further, creativity is needed at all levels within an organization. Like many others, Novell has a company-wide “Incubator” program where we encourage and reward employees who submit business proposals for new solutions they feel deserve development funding. In the last year, two completely original ideas have been taken to market. This scenario demonstrates how product development initiatives can be driven by many individuals across an organization and how a creative approach embraced by everyone within a company can ultimately play a significant role in driving market leadership.
True business and marketing leaders embrace uncertainty and complexity as creative catalysts that invite and, in fact, demand innovation. Creative leaders should view constraints at every level as exciting challenges that release–not restrict–creative responses. Additionally, creative leadership recognizes the risk in trying new things and doesn’t fear failure.
The goal is to cultivate creativity, embrace experimentation and “fail fast.” Google is a good example of a company fully committed to this approach. For example, they took this creative risk with Google Wave, a new online collaboration tool. In August of this year Google announced it was pulling the plug on this project. While some viewed this as a failure, I believe it speaks volumes about Google’s creative leadership philosophy. I particularly admire the courage it takes to say “this isn’t turning out the way we envisioned and we are going to invest our energies elsewhere.” Google’s success rate far surpasses its failure rate–as a result of its willingness to place a premium on inventiveness while establishing guidelines for its success. The very boundaries that some creatives are running from should be embraced as a way to guide and prioritize creativity, not stifle it. There’s no doubt that originality and imagination are in high demand. The big questions are: What type of creativity is valued, and are we as marketing leaders ready to embrace this job description; to not only be creative director but creative leader?
It seems to me what matters most in the business world is “applied creativity”: in other words, what makes the process of buying, using and getting value from our products as simple and productive as possible? If CEOs are battling accelerating complexity, just imagine how your customers feel as they deal with a never-ending supply of challenges and alternatives to solve them. Moving from a business model of “easy to sell” to “easy to buy” shifts the marketing paradigm and by definition the creative response that’s required. It also begs for the kind of creative leadership that marketers are uniquely equipped to provide.
The success of Apple’s iPad illustrates this point. Apple’s creative genius with the iPad is not the technical marvel the device is. Apple’s iPad innovation is in developing and delivering a platform for the creative contributions of hundreds of thousands of developers and their applications for use by the millions of iPad enthusiasts. It’s the application Apple customers are buying and the creative minds within Apple get this. No doubt today’s Apple commercials will be studied as classics for years to come, but it’s the company’s corporate culture, business model and development approach that creates a creative multiplier that truly differentiates it.
But how do we become creative leaders? Truly creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risks. They are open-minded and inventive in expanding their management and communication styles, particularly to engage with a new generation of employees, partners and customers. Some names that come to mind include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Evan Williams and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp. We’ve long since moved from hierarchies to networks and from individuals to teams and these organizational constructs require evolved creative leadership. Namely, more time on the “what” and less time on the “how.” Let’s embrace the dreamers in our organization and give them the proper latitude and guidance to apply their creativity in a way that best serves our customers and the challenges they face.
Creative leadership isn’t about whining or taking your ball and going home when you don’t like things. Creativity begins with an invitation and the problems we face have given marketers an invitation to lead like never before. I hope we embrace this opportunity.