Advertising’s creativity crisis: if creativity is a ‘super-power’ why is everyone so afraid to use it?
Guardian columnist and brand strategist, Arwa Mahdawi, reflects on the decline in creative effectiveness that is threatening the global marketing industry
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There’s no delicate way of putting this: a lot of contemporary advertising is crap. Particularly digital advertising. I mean, let’s be honest here, do you use an adblocker? I ask people in advertising this a lot; more often than not, they admit they do. They spend all day making ads but they’ve gone and downloaded a browser extension so they don’t have to see any ads themselves. Even if you don’t personally use one, the fact that an estimated 40% of internet users utilize an adblocker is a real indictment of the industry.
I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t attracted to the advertising industry because I wanted to make work that was so irritating people did whatever they could to block it. I wanted to go into advertising because, when I was growing up in the UK, the industry had a reputation for creativity. I know it’s not just the nostalgia speaking when I say you used to see ads on TV in the 80s and 90s that were better than the programs you were watching. (Anyone from the UK remember the brilliantly bonkers Pepperami ‘I’m a bit of an animal’ ad? Not sure that would get greenlit today.)
Sadly, however, the creativity that used to define advertising has been slowly seeping out of the industry. Marketing has got less wacky and weird and become way more corporate and safe. A lot of ads look and feel the same. And that’s a big problem because, as we all know—and as a mountain of evidence demonstrates—creative campaigns are more effective. Creative work works.
I’m obviously far from the only person saying this: there’s been a lot of discussion about the industry’s creativity crisis recently. Building on that discussion, the WFA recently spearheaded a global report, Clients and Creativity, digging into the problem. One big takeaway from that report? There’s a weird disconnect between how marketers talk about creativity and how they operationalise it. 82% of the 640 marketers surveyed agreed that creativity is marketing’s super-power. However only 28% said they saw creativity as ‘business critical.’
If the vast majority of marketers say they believe creativity is a superpower then why on earth are they undervaluing its importance in practice? Largely, it seems, because they’re scared. The WFA report found that the biggest barrier to being a more creative client is having a risk-averse culture. Advertisers want to be creative but they also don’t want to get in trouble for being too out there. So they just end up doing what everyone else is doing and a downward spiral of creativity – and effectiveness – follows.
Marketers didn’t just wake up one day and suddenly become risk-averse, of course. Orlando Wood, System1’s Chief Innovation Officer and the author of Look Out, has an interesting macro-level theory for the climate we find ourselves in. Wood’s book argues that creativity is cyclical: the world has periods of great creativity which are then followed by imagination droughts. These droughts are often linked to technological change, which causes societies to look ‘inwards’; our attention narrows, resulting in less creative work.
I’m not a luddite by any means. I’m firmly of the belief that technology has given us new ways to be creative and democratized who gets to create. I think data and analytics can drive brilliant creative work. However, Wood’s argument makes a lot of sense. Over the past decade it feels like everyone has become obsessed with the medium over the message. There’s been a focus on tactics instead of big ideas.
Digital disruption also seems to have driven the advertising industry into an identity crisis. Over the past decade ad agencies seem to have become embarrassed to say they’re in the business of advertising. Everyone wanted to be a tech company. In the rush to embrace the new, some ad people seem to have forgotten what they were good at. They forgot why they entered the profession in the first place.
I know that Wood’s whole thesis is that we need to “look out” but, if we want to solve the crisis of creativity plaguing the ad industry, I think we also all need to look in for a moment. In my best yoga teacher/therapist voice let me ask you to shut your eyes for a moment and think about why you wanted to be in this industry in the first place. Was it so you could cosplay as a tech executive or management consultant? Or was it because you believed in the power of creativity? Because if you really don’t see creativity as ‘business critical’ then you may very well be in the wrong business.