Eating the elephant of creative transformation 

Building a highly creative culture, one bite at a time

At Contagious, we’re fond of saying that creativity is like rocket fuel for brands. It is the magic elixir that supercharges salience and maximises marketing effectiveness. Here’s a bolder statement: creativity is, increasingly, just the gasoline of a modern brand. If you can’t reliably and repeatedly produce creative ideas in your organisation, not only will you fail to reach the stratosphere, you will stall long before you even reach the launch pad.

Companies without creativity will find themselves resigned to watching their competitors skyrocket to success. Over recent decades, we have seen this play out time and time again. Creativity has enabled nascent businesses to topple goliaths and has shaken up how brands engage consumers to such an extent that to say creativity is an essential part of business is no longer a heretical thought; it’s much closer to accepted wisdom.

Perhaps, post-pandemic, we are in a more right-brained state of mind. Perhaps after watching organisation after organisation over-index on algorithmic wizardry and the fetishisation of measurable ROI we are prepared to admit that placing exclusive focus on the science of marketing is a game of diminishing returns.

Perhaps we are entering an era of renewed faith in the power of emotion and contagious ideas — the power of creativity.

And yet, for every business truly embracing creativity, there are dozens more still producing bland, pedestrian, forgettable communications. Even those that happen to produce lightning in a bottle every couple of years seem to spend far more time falling back on category clichés and retreating to safe pastures.

It is a significant undertaking to become an organisation that truly embraces creativity at all stages. It requires making the argument both internally and externally for why creativity matters. It requires sustained commitment, attitudinal alignment and financial investment. It requires Creative Transformation.

Creativity-based budgeting 

So what is Creative Transformation? You might think of it as the leveraging of creativity — effective, efficient, on-brand creativity — in every output you produce across the whole of a brand’s ecosystem. It’s the infusion of creative inspiration and aspiration into the DNA of an organisation.

In recent years, zero-based budgeting has revolutionised the way organisations spend money. Starting from zero, individuals and departments are tasked with making the case for why every expense is justified. Think of Creative Transformation as zero-based budgeting for ideas — except in this case creativity is the zero. Creativity is the default. We should need to argue for why it’s justified to put a non-creative idea out into the world. After all, the vast body of painstakingly granular research from the likes of Peter Field, Les Binet, and Karen Nelson-Field (among many others) suggests that this type of work is most likely costing your company in the long-run.

Creative Transformation surpasses the lifetime of a single campaign, product, or idea. It is not a solitary provocation, but an ongoing process of collective reflection:

  • Are we seeking genuine creativity and setting our ambitions sufficiently high?
  • Are we asking for truly creative work from the people and companies we’re working with?
  • Are we capable of recognising great creativity when it is put in front of us?
  • Are we equipped and organised to execute those ideas, without diminishing and diluting their impact?

Embracing creativity holistically and comprehensively is a significant undertaking. But it is more than justified by the commercial returns realised by the organisations that commit to building creativity into their corporate DNA.

A false sense of security 

The thing that frequently gets in the way of organisations embracing creativity is not related to budgets or to the scale of the undertaking. It is related to our psychology as human beings.

There is an inherent tension within the walls of most marketing organisations: companies (and the leaders within them) often feel forced to choose between bold divergence and timid familiarity. Do they push for the original idea that has the potential to make a legitimate and lasting impact, or do they go with the known work they can safely predict will come in under budget and might spark a slight and temporary uptick in sales?

In almost every organisation, the safer route wins out.

Professor Teresa Amabile, writing in Harvard Business Review, points out that management teams, ‘in the pursuit of productivity, efficiency, and control… undermine creativity’.

Maybe you work in a company like that. Most people do. You probably have KPIs to hit and budgets that don’t flex. Quite frankly, you probably would put ‘keeping your job’ and ‘trying something unproven’ in direct opposition, with the former much more important than the latter.

Cautious corporate behaviour is underpinned by fundamental psychology. Human beings are pack animals, with deep-seated inclinations to align our individual behaviours with collective norms. We typically strive to maintain conformity and avoid uncertainty, which serves us well in many important facets of life. But this survival instinct hamstrings us when it comes to commercial communications. After all, successful marketing is predicated on standing out from competitors and leaving distinctive psychological impressions.

Maintaining conformity and avoiding uncertainty will not lead to ideas that make your heart flutter with excitement or spark sleepless nights of anticipation. Instead, it creates the conditions of stagnancy, the conditions of running out of gas and being overtaken on the highway. These are the conditions of leaving money on the table because of a gross miscalculation of risk and reward.

Fixing this doesn’t happen in an hour or a day. It requires sustained resolve, true leadership and trusted partners to craft an ecosystem that bucks the trend and fuels the engine.

Previously, Contagious Advisory referred to these fixing processes as Creative Excellence programmes – frameworks to help organisations achieve a standard of excellence in understanding, nurturing and applying creativity. This has evolved to Creative Transformation. Why? Because what we’re discussing is not the simplistic, linear attainment of an incrementally higher standard. It is instead nothing short of a complete overhaul of a company’s culture, an ongoing multifaceted process of psychological and practical retooling to help our clients thrive in the mercilessly dynamic and complex modern marketplace.

Pop the trunk 

But it’s not impossible. In the 2010 documentary film I Am, Desmond Tutu asks, ‘How does one go about eating an elephant?’ After a moment’s reflection he answers his own question: ‘You eat it one bite at a time.’ We think of Creative Transformation as eating the elephant of creativity: a tall task, to be sure, but one that is possible with a healthy appetite and a persistent, portioned approach.

When we break it down with our clients at Contagious, there are three important questions we ask:

  1. What is the organisation’s creative ambition? This question asks whether business leaders are pointing towards a compelling creative North Star, talking in a consistent way about it, generating collective momentum, and behaving in a way that makes it clear that creativity is the priority.
  2. Are its tools for creativity fit for that purpose? Do your marketers have the processes and templates in place that make the attainment of high creative standards repeatable, measurable and more predictable?
  3. How and where does the organisation learn about creativity? Most marketers are infrequently involved in the creative process. Do your teams have opportunities outside their daily work to understand, engage with, and be inspired by creativity?

Those answers will reveal holes, gaps, conflicts on the one hand, and promise, potential and sources of momentum on the other. Creatively ambitious businesses grapple with all three levers — ambition, tools, learning — so that they work in unison, helping them to elevate the creative bar and build better brands.

From questions to answers 

Once those questions have been answered, and the lay of the land has been established, specific solutions can be proposed, designed and implemented. There are many different initiatives that we might recommend for our clients across the three levers of ambition, tools and learning. Below are high-level snapshots of some of these Creative Transformation elements:

Ambition / When it comes to setting a bold ambition and clear creative standards, it is often necessary to work with the leaders at the top of an organisation’s marketing function. If a shared creative North Star can be established, then this clarity of aspiration will percolate down through the team. Creative Councils — regular meetings where senior experts critique the organisation’s creative output and consider how it could be improved or what lessons could be learnt — are a powerful way of refining collective creative standards. Initiatives like internal awards can then generate a sense of excitement, status and recognition around creativity. By breeding a sense of healthy competition, teams can feel incentivised to push for bolder, more creative and more commercially effective work.

Tools / Marketers need to have the right practical tools at their disposal in order to drive higher standards of creativity. One of the most foundational tools that can be developed is an evaluation framework. Why? Because recognising and discussing creative work is hard. Marketers can be left feeling exposed and uncomfortable when asked to comment on creative work, and the process of creative evaluation can descend into something highly subjective, undisciplined and unproductive.

A bespoke creative evaluation tool, establishing different levels of creative quality, provides marketers with a clear framework and focused language for engaging with creativity. The framework doesn’t rob them of their own creative judgement, but helps them to imbue it with greater focus and articulate it with heightened clarity. Another key tool to work on is the briefing template. The quality of a brief can make or break the creative development process. This is a marketing team’s opportunity to provide a laser-focused problem for the agency to solve, to bring forth clarity from complexity, and to lay the foundations of creative greatness.

Learning / Finally, there is the area of learning — ensuring that marketers are receiving a healthy and inspiring diet of creativity, both for short intensive periods and over longer timeframes. Marketers have the pleasure and privilege of working in a fascinating area of business. However, this can often get forgotten or obscured in the hustle and bustle of professional life. Stimulating learning experiences help to motivate marketers and remind them of the thrilling possibilities that are within their grasp. More focused learning experiences might take the form of multi-module masterclasses, providing insight and inspiration relating to key areas of creative marketing over a relatively condensed period of time. Meanwhile, regular newsletters or content streams can provide a steady, long-term flow of creative inspiration and provocation.

Blast off 

The good news is that the first step to igniting the engines is finding out why the tank is empty. Understanding the underlying science of how and why creativity works to grow brands is the first step for most organisations to embrace a culture of creativity, and make strides toward producing more creative and more effective work.

No matter how stuck in its ways your company feels, there are brands that have overcome greater inertia. It can be done. Creative cultures can be built in the most old-fashioned organisations, creative muscles can be strengthened in what appear to be the least imaginative teams. And although it doesn’t happen overnight, companies can retrain themselves to doggedly pursue creativity — on strategy, right-for-the-brand, risk-minimising creativity — in everything they do.

Can Contagious Advisory Help You? 

If you want to discuss how Contagious Advisory could help your organisation to leverage the power of commercial creativity, send Chris and James an email on [email protected].

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