PAINTING THE FURNITURE: Why digital & advertising cultures see ‘creativity’ differently.


When the world zigs, zag. — Sir John Hegarty


Since Bernbach ‘invented’ the creative team in the 60s, the concept-led culture of advertising has grown in leaps and bounds.

Before we ‘scienced the sh_t out of it’, (as Matt Damon so colourfully summed up his strategy for surviving being marooned on Mars), advertising was a creative business. That didn’t mean we sat around on plastic sheets with paint pots and safety scissors. ‘Creative’ was a noun, as well as an adjective — it presupposed that the people labelled as such would regularly deliver strategically based, laterally oriented thinking that would produce an idea big enough to lead clients and their agency brand teams in a direction they could all believe in — and apply their respective passions to — in order to create something wonderful, noticeable, persuasive and effective in selling a product, service or viewpoint.

Once we said ‘everyone’s a writer’. Now, everyone’s a Creative Director.

When I started out as a Junior Copywriter, the logical career destination for myself and the Art Directors I teamed with, was to one day become a Creative Director. Nowadays, the term Creative Director seems to apply to any ‘artsy’ supervisory role, be it in craft-based design, hipster hamburgers, even the behavioural science we’ve come to know as User Experience, or UX.

Not to demean crafts, hamburgers or UX — all of which I love — but where has the ‘idea’ culture gone? Not the pickle-on-top-of-the-hamburger kinds of ideas, great as they may be — but the ideas that led groups of people to create communication arts of the highest level. The stuff that really moves people. The advertising.

Why don’t the ideas come first in digital? Or do they?

The culture of start-ups and boot camps — the mammoth Silicon Valley revolution — was never built around idea generation. It was certainly built around ideas — some of the most influential ideas in history — but they were, and still are, the ideas of individuals.

Start-ups are the epitome of this. A person has a great tech idea. They start a company around it. The company grows as the idea is brought to life. The company is acquired. Start over.

This pattern began with the big digital genii. Someone would have a huge tech idea, and then put together a team who could realise that idea. Look at Steve Jobs – once you take him out of Apple, the company has an ‘ideas crisis’. Put the visionary back into the company, crisis averted.

Bringing in teams to build others’ ideas meant that subsequent digital production processes assumed the big idea already existed. The aim of production methodologies such as ‘waterfall’, ‘Kanban’, ‘micro-innovation’ and even ‘agile’ focus on the iteration and incremental optimisation of pre-existing technologies.

This was necessary because there was very complicated technology to deal with, and this process was necessarily handed over to the specialists who could make it happen.

“We need an awesome new web site that does what nobody else’s does.”

Day-to-day digital process would take this oft-wished-for client ‘request’, look around for something new that ‘fits their brief’ and then attempt to ‘iterate it into difference’.

The ‘advertising process’ would take this brief, front-load conceptualisation with a Copywriter/Art Director/Creative Director creative team and not start building anything until all stakeholders had bought into the concept — based on the commonly held assumption that this concept would be the best way to express the brand’s proposition or point of difference.

The difference is, in advertising, we weren’t coming up with ideas like ‘iPod’. We were coming up with ideas to sell iPods.

Who can mix big ideas with the digital teams needed to build them?

I’ve worked with designers more in the past few years than ever before in my career. That’s because I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the digital space, where there is a huge need for people to paint the furniture, before it’s packed up and shipped off to the shiny showroom.

As the UX guys create structures for optimal navigation, as developers iterate and optimise, designers are required to ensure visual amenity. The product is usually on the conveyor belt by the time they have a chance to apply any design thinking. So it’s simply a matter of ‘painting the furniture’.

Who better to paint your new furniture than someone who is qualified as a designer? It’s bound to look beautiful. But it’s also a drastic under-utilisation of a designer’s skill.

Now that the digital world is subsuming the advertising world — or sometimes the reverse — experiments in collaboration are rife: Google’s Art Copy & Code is a prime example of ‘digi-washing’ as these guys realise more and more that they’re almost purely in the advertising business. Experiments in the integration of digital processes with brand-focused, concept-led processes are not. Why? It requires the disruption of two very strong cultures.

The key to avoiding the ‘digital sameness’ that is characterising responsive design is in just such a disruption — one which brings experts in both approaches together as one team. Of course, it needs a bit of give and take on both sides. The ad ‘creatives’ are not famous for sharing their ‘creative secrets’. The digital guys are not famous for the counter-intuitive approach that generates lateral thinking and leads to big brand ideas. Now, your creative team is everybody on a project, carefully resourced to maximise their ‘head time’ and minimise ‘head hours’.

The future is up for grabs here. Some agencies are managing to create their own ways forward, with memorable results. Some are not, and must ultimately be forgotten.

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