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Genuine Creativity Is Good For Business–But You Have To Know How To Recognize It

You’re chained to your desk or tied up in meetings while the creatives are off getting lit up at Cannes. Why should you care what’s going on over there? The answer may surprise you.

Genuine Creativity Is Good For Business–But You Have To Know How To Recognize It

How do you make great advertising?


There are two linked answers to that question. The first has to do with your definition of “creativity” and the second to do with the biases you unknowingly bring to how you judge the work.

Creativity—The Elusive Quality Judges Look for at Cannes

Next week, the marketing industry’s creative elite will gather in Cannes to celebrate the most original communications of the past year. Why should a marketer like you care about award shows like Cannes? Isn’t Cannes just an expensive drunkfest for creative people and senior marketers?

Well, yes. But that’s only a part of it. Smart marketers care about award shows because creativity is good business. In fact, it is an under-appreciated and stealthy competitive advantage.

A couple years ago, the IPA released a study that showed creatively-awarded work is twelve times more effective than work that went unrecognized. That’s the kind of ROI that makes CFOs grin and clap (and approve your bonus). Why does creative recognition pack such a wallop? Creatively-awarded work generates brand fame and social conversation, both of which are tightly linked to effectiveness. The direct connection between creativity and effectiveness is still poorly understood, but at least we know this: creativity works, and award shows are the best proxy we have for an unimpeachable measure of creativity. We make do with what we have. WPP understands. They use Cannes as a key measure of advertising quality. Wall Street, in turn, values WPP highly in part because of how it performs at Cannes.

Ask a few Cannes judges what they look for in award-winning work and they will list off several things. They like work that elicits a strong emotional reaction, links to the brand and bears being watched again and again. But the Grand Prix especially will always come down to one thing above all: genuine originality. Judges will, to a person, say, “I’ve never seen that before”—followed rapidly by “I wish I’d done that.” After seeing one memorable Grand Prix winner last year, a judge was heard to say, “Once I saw that, the shackles on my imagination dropped off.”

If award shows are our proxy for creativity, how do we assess work that is still in development? We use the judging criteria from the shows themselves. It’s flawed, but originality is as good a definition of creativity as you’re going to find in this business. And since creativity is effective (and effective equals employed), you’ll want to look for genuine originality in your next agency creative presentation. Set the bar high. It will be good for you and good for your agency. Resist the temptation to buy work that is safe—the kind that gets through copy testing and management approvals but doesn’t have the stopping power of true originality. If everyone’s content, you’re probably doing something wrong, but it’s awfully nice to sail through without conflict. To guard against that dangerous trait and to inspire the highest possible standard, we’ve set up four bars for your creative to clear:


Perceived Safety:
It’s what the rest of the category does, so it must work. Right? This is where you’ll find cliches like cars skidding through rain and food ads that end with a bite-and-smile. These are tough habits to break, but you must. Work like this won’t get you run out of town, but you’ll need to brush up your LinkedIn page once the campaign results are in.

Perceived Creativity:
It’s similar to another cool, new thing. It’s creative enough to feel like you’re doing something interesting, and yet it’s safe enough that you won’t have to worry about being fired. This is a big trap in the industry. Here you’ll find those real-time marketing duds that aped Oreo’s Super Bowl blackout success. Don’t. Just…don’t.

Genuine Safety:
It’s something we’ve done before, and have proven time and again that it works. It might not be exciting or win awards, but sometimes that’s okay. Here you’ll find magazine ads with scent strips for perfume.

Genuine Creativity:
It’s so original, you’ve never seen anything like it. You have no frame of reference. You don’t even know if it really is good or if you’re just losing your mind. These ideas are difficult to crack, and even harder to buy because there’s little precedent for success. These ideas make you nervous, uncomfortable and confused. But ideas like these can produce a magical feeling that lets you know you’re on to something brand new. The best marketers embrace that uncomfortable feeling.

Biases and How You Judge Creative

So now you know how to define creativity. How do you ensure that you aren’t our own worst enemy when it comes to buying it? The answer is, as you may expect, caveat emptor—buyer beware…of yourself. Learn to recognize the unnoticed forces and hidden biases at play when you review ideas. Studies from Cornell, Penn and the University of North Carolina show that people are biased against creativity when they have something at risk. In his piece, “Why Your Great Ideas Get Turned Down”, David Burkus, Assistant Professor of Management at Oral Roberts University, writes that novelty provokes uncertainty:


When presented with the genuine creativity you want (because it’s so damn effective), you are very likely to be feeling uncertain and uncomfortable as well. This squirmy feeling is a good thing. To get the results you want, you need to recognize those misgivings and then master them.

Ask yourself this:

Never seen it before? Check. Feeling uncertain, uncomfortable, and a little unwell? Check. Well done; you may just be on to something.

Colin Drummond is Chief Strategy Officer of Ogilvy & Mather West.
Jared Gruner is Director of Integrated Strategy and Planning for Ogilvy & Mather West.

[Flickr image by henderswan]