Mark Ritson: The idea that marketers need to be creative is a load of baloney, we’re useless at it

Marketers should stick with their actual job – research and strategy and ignore those who bang on about being creative.

Ritson featured image

It’s July, which means aside from the occasional hot spell and the start of decent cricket, we marketers are about to be deluged by an ocean of talks, tweets and treatises on the importance of creativity and her bespectacled, more reserved brother, innovation.

Blame Cannes. Last week, 13,000 marketers descended on the French Riviera to have the overriding importance of all things creative drummed into them. If proof was needed that Cannes Lions was all about the C word, we need only consult last week’s social media analytics. Apparently, more than half of the messages emanating from the event mentioned either creativity or innovation.

But there’s more than just the annual French maritime circle jerk to persuade marketers that it’s all about creativity. The digital revolution apparent across our industry has many implications and one of them is to make creativity a more appealing focus for many marketers. In years gone by, a brand manager had to surmount several distinct obstacles to get to a point where they would interact with creative teams and partake in the creative end of the marketing conveyor belt. Today, thanks to ‘real-time marketing’ and the surfeit of digital communication platforms that marketers personally manage, many view themselves as being directly responsible for the creative act.

Back in the day when marketers realised that their main challenges revolved around market research, brand positioning, product strategy and pricing there was a much clearer awareness that creatives were a separate species. Few made the mistake of thinking they were the creative ones. But today, many marketers believe that their main challenge is content marketing and traditional strategic work has been replaced with a more abject emphasis on creativity uber alles.

That’s troubling because in my experience most marketers are hopeless at creative work. I say experience not because I claim any personal creative talent (I have none) but because I have worked for several large, creative businesses at the height of fashion and luxury. It’s difficult not to sound like a wanker in that last sentence but it’s true. I worked for several companies famed for their creative prowess and the irony was that I, and the marketers I worked with at these brands, never thought for a second we were creative in any way. We knew our place – which was at the analytical and strategic end of the process that then fed the creative teams.

The problem with marketers proclaiming creativity and innovation as the keystones of our discipline is that they have not actually worked with any true creative people. Maybe compared to finance or operations you might feel like a creative soul. But spend a day with students from Central St Martins or working with genuinely world-leading fashion designers and you will quickly realise that the pure, indelible power of truly creative people is beyond your reach.

That’s ok because, despite what they were saying at Cannes  Lions, the idea that marketers need to be creative is baloney. What we do need to do is our job – research and strategy. And then we have to master another thing I learned working for some of the great fashion brands – we have to brief properly. Instead of making marketers more creative, let’s encourage them to be better at selecting and protecting creative talent and then briefing them properly so that they can get on with their side of the agreement.

Too often marketers don’t see the need for external creative or, when they do use them, they over-brief creative people by sketching out their shit initial ideas and asking them to work from there. Great briefs synthesise the situation, bring to life the target segment and summarise the strategic direction required before stepping back and letting proper creative minds loose on the execution bit. A great brief is like a strategic diving board – strong, solid and weeks in the making – it is ready to be used by creatives to leap from it and perform glamorous feats of creation that will wow everyone. The diving board is integral to the dive, but its builders don’t try for one second to jump from it. They know their place.

Creativity is an amazingly powerful and important element in marketing success. It’s just not something that we marketers should be doing ourselves.


Cannes 2015: The key takeaways

Sarah Vizard

The Cannes Lions Festival might seem like one giant party for the marketing industry but from how brands are using data to be more creative to why diversity in the people behind the creative is so important there was also plenty for marketers to take back to their teams.