Marketers: It’s time to reinvent creativity

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By now, I'd wager cold, hard cash that you've heard it all before: marketing's just not good enough, cool enough, interesting enough, fast enough, real enough, tough enough, slick enough, noisy enough, responsible enough.

And, as rousing and convincing as those arguments are, you've probably also concluded that the state of the art as it stands is, truth be told, more than OK to get the job done.

Yet, while we might not want to admit it, I bet we all know it: we can--and should--do better.

This article was originally posted on the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX), an open innovation project aimed at reinventing management for the 21st century.

The fact is, the future of marketing's probably not going to be the past of marketing, just bigger, faster, noisier. Put yourself in the shoes of one of the so-called "consumers" who, a few short years from now, has to submit to a daily barrage of four thousand flying, spinning, tracking, shouting "ads" hunting you down like enraged banshees from your browser, to the street corner, to the bookstore, to the ends of the very earth for a moment.

That approach just won't cut it when it comes to meeting the seemingly insurmountable challenges and imperatives of the 21st century: including managing "resistance" from self-organizing networks of people (when it's not spiraling apathy, indifference, or outright distrust, that is); seeding, nurturing, and harvesting lasting, meaningful relationships; distilling the signal, instead of adding to the noise; building shared values, instead of succumbing to lowest-common-denominator "tactics;" forging enduring compacts with, instead of merely broadcasting cleverer promises to all of your constituencies; grappling with the effects of lost decades of austerity on countries and communities; and facing down the fracturing relationship between stuff, happiness, and prosperity; shaping and imagining transformatively better experiences, instead of merely pushing new-but-not-so-improved "product."

Consider that (still unfolding) list a line-item account of the "relevance deficit" between marketing as we know it and the 21st century as we're living it.

Before we get on to the 21st century, travel with me back to the mid-20th and the world of Don Draper. Apart from better suits and sharper haircuts, what was really different? I'd say it might be what one could call a seat at the table. Then, the input of marketers wasn't merely valuable, it was invaluable; it wasn't merely perfunctory, it was critical; it wasn't timely, but timeless; it wasn't tactical, it was strategic; it wasn't mechanical, but foundational to the basic competitive choices organizations made. In their heyday, the masterminds of creative endeavor were a little bit more like--some might argue nothing less than--trusted advisors, shrewd consiglieri, and sage mentors to the titans of industry and the leaders of nations (a role, today, that's the jealously guarded, zealously protected turf of management consultancies, academic gurus, and investment bankers). Endgame: today, in most boardrooms, whether corporate, national, or non-profit, the voices of authority most often come from the analytical worlds of finance, strategy, and economics--and less so from the creative worlds of marketing, branding, and design.

I'm not out to romanticize the past so much as to pin down the plight of the creative present. Here's how I'd summarize it. While it might not be the case that--as the digerati are wont to declaim--"Marketing's, like, totally over, dude. Didn't you get the tweet!?" It probably is the case that marketing is not be living up to its potential--what it was capable of just a few short decades ago, and probably still is.

Economists speak of the "exorbitant privilege" that a country with a reserve currency has: the ability to keep an economy strong even in the face of weak fundamentals. Marketing enjoyed a kind of exorbitant privilege in its glory days: a paucity of information. In a newly industrialized world, what was truly expensive and scarce was information--and marketing sprang up as a way to transmit information from industrialists to consumers (and to profit handsomely from the art of doing so).

But over the last half century, information has gotten cheaper than free. Today, it overflows from our pockets, our cars, the very air around us. And with that crash in the price of information, so the overarching economic justification for marketing has begun to ebb, erode, and maybe even to disappear. And thought you may certainly suggest to me that marketing plays a psychological role in "attaching" people to "brands' with sets of illusory promises acutely targeted to voids and gaps in people's lives, I'd just as certainly assure you that doing so creates little to no authentic economic value (that, unfortunately, demands the hard work of making people tangibly better off). You can try, but you can't fight cold, hard economics. The prime mover of creativity's fall from grace, the great challenge it must surmount if it wants to survive (let alone thrive): real rates of returns to the boardroom that are at best marginally positive, and on average around zero.

Here's the crux. Though the tools, tricks, and techniques of yesteryear are, indeed, still just enough to "get the job done, merely getting a less and less strategically critical and economically vital job done probably isn't good enough for your own lasting prosperity (unless your idea of a great career is being metaphorically demoted from Don Draper to Junior Receptionist). Hence, I'd suggest: it may be that marketers have to become less mechanics of the present--and more architects of the future.

So what might it take to begin marketing's voyage past the well-charted--and by now, lonely and arid--shores of the industrial age? What's the job of the architects of the future--those who literally imagine, design, build, and create the future?

I'd say a necessary list of requisite skills goes something like this: to have the impertinence to believe that it might just be not only possible--but necessary--to, dream bigger (for humanity), think sharper (for awe-inspiring accomplishment, not just short-term advantage), push harder (for real value--and more enduring values) and do better (for people and society). Simply put: it's time to expand the heart, renew the soul, and awake the mind of the rusting, fading industrial age discipline of creativity.

Sound hopelessly impractical? Think again. You can already see the revolution I've traced above beginning to ignite. Check out Stanford's insanely awesome "d-school" --so cool that if I had my druthers, every MBA would have to spend a semester there seeking redemption. Courses like "Design for Extreme Affordability" aren't the push-marketing stuff of yesteryear--they're not about using creative skills in the pursuit of industrial age stuff, but to disrupt the pursuit of industrial age stuff--and to change the world radically for the better.

Consider, this, then a challenge: a mini-manifesto for rebellion against the threadbare status quo, for reimagining creativity's power and possibilities, by shooting not just for the next campaign, account, client, or prize--but for the moon. If I was asked, "Hey, Umair, how should we hack (as in managerially hack, institutionally innovate) creativity--and bring a tiny bit of empathy, wisdom, and just plain good taste back into the boardrooms of the world?"--well, my little answer would probably go something like this: "Welcome to the 21st century, wannabe-Draper Jr. Let me humbly suggest: your discipline's day might just have come--and gone. "Creativity" as we know it has reached steeply diminishing, if not negative, returns. It's time to elevate the art--to focus with laser-like intensity on a fundamentally truer, wiser, higher, more powerful, challenging, and disruptive form of creativity. Want to create the future of creativity? Create a better future for humanity."

Umair Haque is Director of the Havas Media Lab and author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He also founded Bubblegeneration, an agenda-setting advisory boutique that shaped strategies across media and consumer industries.

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