Shining a light on the dark art of creativity

Agencies are under intense scrutiny from clients eager to put a price on all marcomms activity. As transparency and measurement become increasingly important, what role will the dark art of creativity play in future of the advertising?

One word currently looms large over the world of advertising – trust. Dominating headlines, echoing around conference halls and owning boardroom conversations, it’s vaunted as the elixir that sustains both client and consumer relationships.

This surge of hype has driven discussion and self-doubt amongst advertisers, not to mention a fair amount of finger pointing. The creative department is at the heart of this debate and it’s framed as both the cause and victim of mistrust within advertising, depending on whom you’re speaking to.

Arguments aside, one thing is for sure; clients are increasingly eager to understand how their investment in ideas and ingenuity translates into meaningful results.

Creativity in the crosshairs

As recession has evolved into austerity, most brands have come under significant pressure to drive down costs, root out inefficiency and demonstrate consistent ROI to investors and shareholders. Part of this burden has been shifted onto the shoulders of agencies, and creative departments have borne the brunt.

Clients now want insight into the mechanics and value of all elements of agency work and the dark art of the creative process is being exposed to the glare of scrutiny. Creative Directors in particular find themselves under the microscope. Where once they traded in mystique, clients want to see what lies behind the magician’s curtain.

This urge to peek behind the scenes may be a result of the fact that many clients now have first-hand experience of the creative process. The increasing popularity and importance of social media has driven many brands to bring creative in house and as a result they’re now adept at measuring the efficacy of ideas and have a clear understanding of what works and what’s cheap. This puts pressure on creative teams to deliver consistent, high-quality results on time and on budget. What’s more, it removes room for error.

The days of dedicated teams working on one account are also drawing to a close. Clients want to know who’s working on their account and precisely what they’re doing. Time is at a premium and all creatives must now work as efficiently and effectively as possible, hopping from one account to another.

The data generation

It’s tempting to point the finger at creative departments and claim they must rise to these challenges, and fast. But many of the issues facing creative departments are symptomatic of wider problems facing agencies.

Creatives are hired to develop original, inspiring and thought-provoking work and as Committee Chairman of the DMA Awards I can attest to the fact that standards are as high as ever. In my view, no individual agency department or function is letting the side down; rather it’s traditional processes and models that are no longer working. As digital and social media have swept to prominence, tried-and-tested methods have become broken-and-bothersome and this is where the root of the problem lies.

Take the gaping crevasse that still exists between data scientists and creative professionals. In my experience, few agencies have taken meaningful steps to bridge this gap, which is ludicrous when you consider the benefits of developing data-driven creative.

The talent to support this model is already emerging. Many writers, designers and developers that create digital content such as blogs, videos and podcasts are already adept at tracking the impact of their work and adapting content based on insights gleaned from data. As they transition into the workforce they may well expect and request the same degree of insight and feedback on their work. After all, it can be incredibly valuable and immensely gratifying. Who needs a Lion when you have evidence that your work drove 100,000 people to purchase a product?

As this generation rises up through the ranks we may well witness change but agencies must be prepared to nurture this talent today. Just as creative professionals have always required time to develop ideas and seek inspiration, new generations should be given the freedom to gather, explore and analyse data with the aim that it will spark the next big idea. How many agencies do you know that are currently setting aside resources or establishing processes to account for this?


To meet shifting client, customer and employee expectations, agencies need to establish a more connected and fluid system, with each department and function operating in conjunction with one another.

For clients, the benefit of such a model is clear – a more responsive and flexible creative resource that can demonstrate the value of its output in an instant. A collaborative team will also have the skills and capabilities to integrate with brands and is likely to be more efficient and cost-effective.

If this vision sounds farfetched, take a look at the work of last year’s DMA Award’s Grand Prix winner, Proximity. Working with The Economist, it took a collaborative, data-driven and hyper-agile approach to creative development. It consolidated its own research with The Economist’s data to identify where its audience consumed content and delivered relevant, dynamic ads to these prospects in real time.

Its creative team even sat in on editorial meetings and developed content as and when stories broke to ensure messages were as relevant and timely as possible. Crucially, this guerrilla approach worked, attracting 64,000 new subscribers, equivalent to £51.7 million in lifetime revenue for the publication.

Perhaps this is the future of the creative department – tactical SWAT teams of highly skilled individuals, armed with accurate data and ready to be deployed in an instant.

A collaborative, open and responsive approach may also help engender trust with clients. After all, you can’t complain about a lack of transparency or visibility when the creative team is sitting in your meeting room.

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