Success in 2012 will be reserved for creative thinkers

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I finally got around to reading Walter Isaacson’s brilliant Steve Jobs biography this Christmas, as did Mark Ritson it seems. After filing his latest column, Ritson later emailed me to emphasise the point relating to Jobs that he makes in the piece.

In his email he wrote: “Jobs referred to himself continuously as a marketer. But that self-definition was not mirrored by the external world because marketers are ‘shits’ and Jobs was a genius.” He continued: “Even when one of the great business persons of the era is a marketer, society negates the reference completely.”

It’s an interesting point but it wasn’t my main take-away from the book. All the time I was reading about this eccentric who broke all the business, manufacturing and design rules around him to create a distinct and lasting business, I kept remembering the interviews I’d conducted before Christmas when writing the first Marketing Week cover story of 2012 on creativity.

In the article, we explore whether creativity and ‘human understanding’, something Jobs had in bucket loads and a concept volunteered by every single marketer that contributed to the article, will separate the achievers from the strugglers this year.

It was a strange experience. Almost every time Isaacs drew upon an inspiring Jobs quote in the biography, I recalled a similar notion compellingly argued by a contributor to my article, whether it was Diageo chief marketer Andy Fennell, Unilever senior vice-president of marketing Marc Mathieu, Karmarama partner and IPA president Nicola Mendelsohn or Ogilvy & Mather vice-chairman Rory Sutherland.

Each marketer I interviewed believes that, more than data or insight, creativity will be your most powerful weapon of choice this year, if you’re brave enough to exploit it. They refer to creativity as a business input as opposed to the creativity you might employ as an output to make your TV ad; ‘Thinking Different’ as Jobs put it.

Every problem, they argue, has a creative solution. For example, the London Underground station where I join the Tube network to commute each day is not traditionally a safe place to be after dark. Anti-social behaviour is not rare, with incidents often spilling over into violence. But the Tube station itself is no longer as intimidating as it once was. Somebody came up with a bright idea. Rather than paying for extra police officers to patrol at peak travel times someone decided to pay for a CD player instead and use it to pipe classical music through the station. The station staff report that the move has had an extraordinary effect, making the station environment “calmer, softer and more pleasant”.

Such creativity used to solve problems almost always has its root in human understanding and behavioural insight (in this case, one assumes, the insight that it is physically impossible for one human being to mug another to the tune of Ave Maria). Creativity often relies on insights based on instinct rather than proof – the sort of ideas that you wouldn’t want to pitch at a boardroom full of people whose approach to solving problems are entirely dictated by numbers and logic.

Any idea you have this year that doesn’t fall within the strict parameters set by your organisation’s data is likely to receive short shrift. In bleak economic times, data equals proof, proof provides return on investment and ROI means accountability.

But that equation risks leaving your brand indistinguishable among your competitors. As Mathieu told me: “We all talk about differentiation, but if everybody uses the same data then there is no differentiation.”

In 2012 we’ll face what could be the toughest 12 months of trading since any of us began our careers. The words “failure is not an option” will be the creed emanating from most of the world’s board meetings. But a quite different take on the value of failure, of risk, of intuition and instinct, will be heard coming from those that aim to do more than simply retain market share.

In short, if your next 12 months is to be about growth, you’ll need to ‘think different’. Or, to paraphrase the famous 1997 Apple ad of the same name: “Here’s to the crazy ones. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.”

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