Improving creativity is not just about being more creative.

As the advertising world returns from Cannes 2022, now is a good time to reflect on the subject of creativity.

The subject of declining creativity in our industry has been around for some time. It was a key theme at this year’s WFA Global Marketer Week held in Athens, with discussion of the challenge between focusing on creativity and being distracted by the next big thing, currently technology.

As Sir John Hegarty argued, brands have begun to prioritise promotion at the expense of persuasion and there is a need to get back to their raw truth, broadcasting brand purpose whilst informing and educating audiences.

What do we mean by creativity?

Creativity was once the exclusive domain of advertising copywriters and art directors, but we now demand it from all facets of the marketing communications industry.

Definitions of creative marketing abound, this one sums it up well:

‘The generation and execution of communicating unique messages in an inventive way. This allows a message to be remembered, leading to higher brand recognition and consequently, increased sales. Creativity is the secret weapon to outsmarting, rather than outspending, your competition.’

Note that this definition says nothing about who should bring this creativity, and there is nothing to suggest that it is limited to a particular service vertical. In modern marketing, it’s everyone’s responsibility to be creative.

How we evaluate creativity

That being the case, how can we improve creativity without necessarily being more creative?

There’s no doubting the power of creative genius. But it is clear from our work over the past 20 years, that genius alone does not mean high creativity scores when marketers evaluate their agencies.

Aprais has evaluated almost 25,000 client-agency relationships covering all communications disciplines. In that time we have accumulated a vast bank of questions that clients use to evaluate the creativity of their agency partners. Many of these questions when read in isolation, might seem unrelated to the pure generation of ideas, yet they influence the way marketers view the creative performance of their agencies.

We have distilled those questions down to pinpoint seven ways that agencies (and marketer teams) can improve creativity – without necessarily being more creative;

1. Accuracy

This is about being relied upon to deliver the goods, to translate agreed strategies into good work and to independently execute and produce work within agreed parameters, on time and on budget. For regional and multinational campaigns, this is also about being relied upon to adapt central assets for the local market appropriately.

2. Big, broad ideas

‘Big idea’ means not only a powerful concept but also one which is rooted in consumer, brand or marketing insights and transcends specific media or executional format. Adding value by thinking ‘outside the box’ is applicable to all job functions in marketing. Regardless of the defined scope, agencies need to think and act ‘media neutral’ and demonstrate a deep understanding of evolving channels and venues.

3. Innovation

Challenge is one of the most powerful behaviours we have identified across 25,000 client-agency evaluations. Marketers and agencies must continually push the boundaries with innovative ideas and solutions. As clients are most often in the driver’s seat of relationships it is important that brand marketers encourage innovation and creativity from their internal and external teams.

4. Collaboration

With so many internal stakeholders and agencies involved in the marketing process, collaboration will ensure that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Agencies should work constructively with client during the creative process and be ready and willing to collaborate with their competitors, in the interests of their common client.

5. Passion

So many great ideas die due to poor, uninspiring presentation. I’ve also seen mediocre ideas ‘sell’ through the pure enthusiasm and confidence of the presenter. From strategy through briefing to execution, all parties need to passionately articulate their ideas and strive for the best.

6. Strategy

If you seek pure, unbridled creativity, visit a kindergarten. Professionals in marketing communication are paid to achieve a commercial gain. Solutions must be based on clear briefs and those briefs based on intelligence, insight and clear strategic thinking. Generating fresh concepts and bringing them to life needs creative stimulus. This can come from real life experience or by referencing exceptional work from other brands and categories. Clients respect agencies that act as marketing advisors within and outside their scope.

7. Talent

In order to persuade people, one needs to understand human nature. The needs and aspirations of the target consumers. As mentioned above regarding ‘real-life experience that inspires creativity, look for talented creators that have interesting lives and broad interests that fuel their imaginations. Look at lives beyond the CV when selecting talent.

Hire people who won’t let their ego prevent them from building on the ideas of others. Talent should be able to enhance the concepts of others as well as creating imaginative solutions of their own.

How teams can improve creativity

The discipline of periodically having to respond to a carefully curated list of questions about performance, educates teams about the expectations of each other. For this reason we recommend regular, formalised evaluations of both marketer and agency, whether managed internally or by a third party. Apart from instilling better team behaviours, it enables the tracking of progress over time.

As shown in the chart below, the potential for improvement is clear. Evaluation scores for creativity improve steadily over time. This also applies at the overall relationship level as well as improvements in other behaviours and scope-specific skills.

Improvement of client evaluation of creativity over the first 18 months.

The above chart maps the client scores of creativity-related areas among the bottom 10% of agencies. From a score of 52 to 67 represents a 23% improvement in the 18 months following their first evaluation.

Creativity, our lifeblood

As Marla Kaplowitz, president and chief executive of the 4A’s recently wrote: ‘Don’t lose sight of the value of creativity (in all forms) as the vehicle for solving challenging business problems. Agencies need to take a closer look at how their creativity supports business transformation through talent, automation and sustainability.