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.


There are 12 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. leftoverlondoner 2 Jul 2015

    Hear hear. The ability to brief is vital, but so is the ability to recognise good creative when it is delivered. The fact that so many marketing campaigns are lacklustre isn’t because there’s a shortage of good creatives, it’s because marketers can’t get the best out of them.

  2. Suze 2 Jul 2015

    Sometimes though, a lack of perceived creativity can be down to senior management sign-off – I have worked with great design agencies who have come up with some brilliant stand-out ideas, but getting that final approval further up the chain, outside of the Marketing team, can mean that those campaigns never see the light of day. Sure, there’s a role for Marketing in pitching and selling those ideas to senior management in an accessible way that will increase the likelihood of getting that all-important go ahead, but all too often I have seen some great ideas stifled by those who just couldn’t see the vision or see things through the eyes of the customer.

  3. I whole heartedly agree. Thank you for exposing the truth of marketing companies strangling creatives by over-briefing. With ridiculous restrictions only made worse by the pittance they think design is worth, it’s no wonder clients
    aren’t getting what they want – or need.

    In the words of a true creative, Diana Ross, Set me free, why don’t you babe.


  4. Mark, I can’t completely agree. I think the real problem is that too many marketers lack the creativity that’s necessary to effectively work with the ‘creatives’. Our job is so much more than research and strategy; it’s our ability to think creatively – with our creative agencies and others – that makes the difference between mediocre and memorable.

  5. edward 2 Jul 2015

    If the message from Cannes is to go and be creative, it probably doesn’t mean do it yourself. It’s a rallying cry to be brave, find it, support it and help make it happen. Every great campaign and Cannes Lion winner requires the partnership of a great client. Great marketers need to and usually do recognize the importance of creativity in all aspects of their marketing mix. Even writing a great “creative” brief- implies there’s creativity required in writing a good one. However, it’s the complex challenges of today’s marketplace that demand brand relevance. That puts a premium on creativity and the unique blend of marketing skills that are one part art and one part science. Whether your creativity comes from inside the organization or outside, today’s marketers can’t thrive without an understanding and an appreciation of how they can use creativity to transform their brands and business.

  6. Gwyn 2 Jul 2015

    This is quite an article….I guess it seems the modern marketer is more occupied with getting flashy message across to the market and losing out on the strategic and analytical aspect of the Marketing Role.

    I think this is one reason that has led to Marketing being mostly related to market place-vendor-like-promotions and ads dept.

    However, creativity cannot be ruled out completely but at the same time should not lead to marketing-myopic approach.

  7. Siobhan Lowrey 2 Jul 2015

    There is an element of truth in everything that is being discussed & put forward here – Marketers may not be, or need to be Creative in the sense of ‘doing’, but they absolutely need to have an understanding of the Creative, work in partnership with those that do the ‘doing’, and naturally think Creatively. At the same time there is no doubt that the brief writing has to be spot on, with that fine line securely balanced on, and the analysis & strategy key (which let’s face it, is never seen as being as ‘sexy’ as the Creative bit). For me it’s always been a frenemies type relationship, where ultimately the most exciting results are achieved because the Marketers’ & Creatives’ admirations & frustrations with one another bring out the best in both! A great debate, thank you Mark.

  8. Andy Wood 3 Jul 2015

    Excellent article Mark. Full of some honest truths that you’ve highlighted well. On the video creative side of thing we know exactly what you’re talking about – even more so possibly.

  9. E Roberts 5 Jul 2015

    I think the underlying truth, alluded to by Mark in this piece, is that marketers are damned by the fact they often more creative than others within an organisation. So those of us who ply our trade client-side don’t just find ourselves to be creative by comparison, our peers and seniors often push/sideline us as the “creative ones”, relegated (as they’d see it) to handling the creative stuff they consider ephemeral.

    A secondary point is that the vast majority of us (client or agency side) don’t work in/for uber-creative businesses like LV or Karl Lagerfeld, so any creative input offered by marketers with some appreciation of its merits is usually a plus.

    None of this undermines the central point Mark makes but it would be amusing if, in adopting all the strategic and analytical responsibilities we rightly should own within an organisation, we cede ownership entirely of the one area – creativity – that so many of our workplace peers associate us with most.

  10. Hello Mark – I can only think that your mind’s on the summer vacation – either that or the Moleskine/iPad’s running a bit dry for the weekly dose of writing inspiration ? Either way I’d expected something a little more from you than parroting this outdated drivel, even if there is a whiff of mischief behind it. ‘Knowing their place’, ‘suits’ and creatives’, ‘beyond reach’ …for a few worrying moments there I thought I’d somehow been whisked back to the ’80s. Creativity is a state of mind (some mind’s more expansive than others I grant you) and goes beyond words and pictures, it’s about how people interpret the world around them and then re-interpret it for others. If your journey through large creative agencies has lead you to conclude that marketing is bereft of creative thinkers (and doers) then perhaps it’s time to widen your orbit ?

  11. Al King 6 Jul 2015

    “Give me the freedom of a tightly defined
    brief.” Saatchi

  12. I definitely think it’s beneficial for marketers to have a good understanding of the creative process. The danger is, creative becomes devalued when marketers take a ‘that’ll do’ attitude. I think there’s too much emphasis these days on quantity over quality, and quality falls down again in the frequent mad rush to get content or campaigns out. Great debate, well done Mark.

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