A golden touch?

Creativity should not be applied at the end of a process, it should be a state of mind.

In Alchemy, people believe that base metals can be turned to gold. There are many Alchemists working in marketing. They hold onto a common misconception that “creativity” is something to be applied at the end of the process, that the creative executions will provide all the required magic to transform mediocre offerings into something truly exciting. Clients are always telling us they are not “creative” people. So the creativity is outsourced to agencies.

I am proposing that “creativity” is a state of mind and that we should view it as a currency with which to trade. A tool to build businesses with, to develop products, attract customers and keep the ones we have happy. If we sell new and creative thinking we attract customers who are excited by this energy. If we keep them inspired over time, they’ll keep buying and might even tell others about how innovative and great we are. This is the currency of creativity at work. And it starts and ends with respect for our consumers.

Two trends, reinvigorated by the digital revolution, have forced a more respectful approach onto marketers. One is viral (word-of-mouth) marketing. The other is permission marketing.

With viral marketing, your communication is supposed to be so mind-blowing that people want to send it on to friends and let it represent their taste to peers. In this pursuit we are in competition with genuinely entertaining content: television, film, art, comedy, office jokes, the Government, football. Our own “creative” not only has to compete, but it has to motivate people to part with their own hard-earned cash too.

Talking a lot but saying little

Instead, we seem to contribute too often to the majority of environmental pollution (messages that begin to bug you) and contribute only a handful of ideas to popular culture (stuff that people talk about). The odd great TV spot or viral cuts through, but on the whole we talk a lot and interest our audiences very little. Our audiences are therefore in control of the effectiveness of our marketing through the messages they choose to consume. We have to be very special (or very nice to them) for them to notice us it seems.

So this leads us to the second trend, permission marketing. An assumption about relationships is that once the door is open, it will remain pretty much open for all further communications, thereby avoiding the stress of competing for people’s attention. This assumption is incorrect.

A relationship’s success relies on us imparting solid reasons with every communication why a consumer should keep that door open for us. This information exchange has to be of long-lasting value to both parties. Our audiences have better things to do with their time and attention, and permission marketing is helping them to make us aware of that.

So this is why creativity is now so crucial. One definition of “creativity” is “characterised by originality and expressiveness; imaginative” (Oxford English Dictionary). These are the characteristics people respond to in all communications. These are emotional “memes”. They excite people.

Innovation breeds creation

Innovative brands such as Apple, Honda, Innocent Smoothies, Nike, Pot Noodle and Virgin are all exponents of creative thinking. They are more than their ad agencies and a lot more than the sum of their campaigns. These are all businesses that see what they do as a creative endeavour and are customer centred in their thinking. From that point of view, creative marketing is simply a natural extension of their respect for their customers – Nike helping people to participate in their sport, Honda trying to perfect everything you use.

So why aren’t all brands seen as vibrant, inspiring and full of exciting new news, day in, day out? Why don’t all brands create marketing that people in the know deem “creative”?

Here are a few ideas about what exciting brands share:

Focus on customers

The beauty of marketing is that it involves a million unknowns – the customers. And they keep changing. They keep living in new ways, always working to make their lives easier. But we don’t really know them until they decide to get to know us. If we fail to listen and work with them, we lose any edge we might have had. As soon as Apple stops working with designers (the customers who also create their products), it will die. As soon as Pot Noodle takes itself seriously (something it did in the dark old days), it will wither.

Brands are only inventive when they are challenging themselves to get closer to their customers. A non-inspiring campaign comes from a non-inspiring “brand view” of the world. And you can be sure that view did not originate with the customers, who have far better things to do than live in dull ways. So the blame rests with the translator – the marketer.

A ‘challenger’ mentality

“It’s easy for them” is a dull cry to hear. All products and companies can be challengers. Reinvention and fresh thinking sustains it. Sony still challenges to this day.

Staying true to long-term visions

It’s a concern that many clients (and agency people too) move jobs every two to three years. It’s even worse if the business is designed around short-term sales targets. The same pressure that forced Sir Richard Branson to take Virgin private again is behind every unoriginal thought in marketing. A creative state of mind will shatter under the weight of short-term restrictions.


True innovation comes from playing and exploring. And this is why testing is a direct marketer’s Joker card, we can be creative and then prove ourselves right.

There should never be an office door marked “creativity” in marketing. Great agency ideas come from great client ideas, and they are everyone’s responsibility. The way to get to them is by adopting a flexible, creative approach to inspiring audiences.


Martin Bailie, planning director, Glue London

2001 Planning director at Glue London

1998 Co-founded Liquidworld, a specialist digital direct marketing agency for the arts and charity sectors

1997 Worked for BBC TV drama publicity

1994 Theatre director in London, Dublin and New York

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