Creativity and predictability: Managing a marketer’s dilemma

5 minute read

A facilitator stands at the front of the room before a group of melancholy middle managers who have signed up for training because, among other things, it shows that they’re committed to personal development. After the muffins have been grabbed, the coffee has been poured and the whirring projector has been focused, the facilitator steps forward, leans into the room and presents their opening query, “So… what IS creativity?”

As a founder of a creative agency, a former executive creative director and the co-author of a book that is literally called, Everyone’s an Artist, any attempt to provide a singular definition for creativity gives me a rash. To a junior art director, creativity might mean the desire to create a reaction. To a global CMO, creativity might mean the desire to create disruption. To an interpretive dancer struggling to pay rent, creativity might mean the desire to fulfill a life’s purpose. There are enough TED talks and Maya Angelou-inspired Instagram quotes on creativity without me trotting out one more.

But I’ll tell you what creativity isn’t: Predictable.

To a global CMO, creativity might mean the desire to create disruption. To an interpretive dancer struggling to pay rent, creativity might mean the desire to fulfill a life’s purpose.

Ron Tite

Creativity is uncertainty

Creativity is based in original thought and expression. Creativity defies logic, presents unique perspectives and results in people thinking, “Wow. That is so unexpected.”

Predictability, on the other hand, channels logic, presents repurposed perspectives and results in people thinking, “Yup. Just as I expected.”

Let’s face it. Creativity and predictability can’t work together. They could never co-exist. And the only place they should be seen side-by-side is in a branded content YouTube renewal of the sitcom, The Odd Couple.

Clients routinely brief their agencies with, “Show me something that has never been done before. And be sure to include some benchmarks on performance.” Sorry, but that’s not how logic works. If something is so creative that it has never been thought of, forecasting reaction is not only impossible, it’s irresponsible.

But I get it.

Yes, our brands need to have souls so we can elevate the conversation, put purpose before product and connect in meaningful and compelling ways. We need original thinking and never-before-seen ideas that make people stop, look and listen.

But you can’t swing for the fences without being comfortable that you might strike out. And striking out just isn’t something most organizations are comfortable with. While CEOs can deliver the proverbial, “We need to embrace failure” speech, there is nothing about corporate culture that embraces failure. You’re not encouraged to fail. You’re not compensated to fail. You’re paid to make forecasts, then meet (or slightly exceed) them.

Uncertainty is risk

In a recent discussion with Seth Godin, I asked him why marketers choose the safe and predictable route by chasing certain data-centric tactics and the benchmarked metrics they provide. His response: “I don’t think people are lazy, as much as they are afraid.”

I agree with him. To use his words, predictability gets you “off the hook.” No risk means no surprises. No surprises means no failures. No failures means you get to continue feeding your family.

But wait, there’s more.

Get Ron’s full article on how creativity becomes predictability.

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Risk can be managed

When Chris Rock performs a comedy special, you may laugh at the hilarity and bow down in front of his brilliance. But Chris Rock, (or any other professional comedian worth discussing) is more about predictability than creativity. Behind the hour we view, there are hundreds of hours on the road perfecting the material so that by the time he records it, every line, every beat, every expression and every step is delivered in the best way possible. Creativity may be at the heart of it, but the creativity becomes predictable.

Creativity isn’t killed by predictability. It becomes it.

Every artist knows you make more money from the print than you do from the original. It’s just that the most successful prints come from the most brilliant and unique originals.

But how do you do it? How do you use unbridled creativity to lead you to predictable levels of elevated performance? Do you use one of those stock shots of the two sides of the brain? Do you train your creatives to use a spreadsheet? Do you trade in the denim for khakis?

No. You get a Flint.

Reduce risk, unlock creativity

I grew up in Oshawa, Ontario, so my natural inclination is to use the “Shwa” to reference General Motors, but given the state of automobile manufacturing in the city that once “moto-vated Canada,” Flint, Michigan is probably more appropriate.

See, GM and other car manufacturers can teach us a lot about how creativity can lead to predictability. Marketers need to embrace both.

  1. Reducing risk with predictable process: The assembly line

    The assembly line is where the car folks make their money. Every single ounce of inefficiency has been removed. Everyone on the team has a role that is very clearly defined. Whatever they do, they do it over and over and over. It’s not only efficient, it’s repeatable behaviour. The result is that quality is maintained, costs are contained and the margin is consistent. Every. Single. Time.

    Interestingly, there’s no collaboration on the assembly line. Nobody halts production to blue sky or spit ball some crazy idea. Everyone does their job, they pass it off to the next person, and the line continues with peak efficiency. They have benchmarks for production, forecasts on costs, expected rates of return, clear ROI and a commitment to quality control.

    While they’re doing that, many marketers and their agency partners are arguing over the colour of the napkin in the background of a photo of a bowl of soup, drawing out the process by over-analyzing details that have little significance to the overall results.

    If it’s assembly line, it’s assembly line. Kill it and bill it. Deliver it in the most efficient way possible and move on so you can save time, money and brain power for the stuff that will really rock your world.

  2. Cultivating creativity: The concept car

    When automotive manufacturers want to explore new ideas to topple their established ways of thinking, they create a concept car. The concept car doesn’t go near the assembly line. There’s no hope or expectation that the concept car will ever go into production. They just do it to do it.

    Sometimes, they’ll discover that one component of the concept car can be integrated into the assembly line. Over time, the assembly line innovates responsibly because of the experimental components that feed it.

    The predictable assembly line is where you meet your forecasts, improve your ROI, establish benchmarks and engage in repeatable behaviour that delivers the metrics you cherish.

    The concept car is where you remove the handcuffs to play, try things you’ve never done before, integrate new and original perspectives and create art.

    The concept car is where you spend your money. The assembly line is where you make it.

    Most start-ups are just building concept cars. Most established organizations are just assembly lines. The best type of organization is the one that can have a healthy balance of the two. Remember, they’re an odd couple. They don’t exist together. One becomes the other.

    Most start-ups are just building concept cars. Most established organizations are just assembly lines. The best type of organization is the one that can have a healthy balance of the two.

    Ron Tite

    Look, a simple automotive metaphor may lead to greater understanding but please don’t think there’s anything simple about its implementation. You’re a marketer. Maybe you’re the data-driven, analytical marketer who loves crunching numbers and driving engagement within two decimals places of your prediction. Maybe you’re the artistic brand champion grounded in the soul and desired emotional response of your communications. Crossing over isn’t easy. Just put one foot in front of the other.

This is a reduced version of Ron Tite’s article, featured in INCITE magazine.


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Ron Tite
Ron has been an award-winning writer and creative director for some of the world’s most respected brands – speaking to leading organizations about creativity, innovation, branding and corporate strategy. His first book, Everyone’s An Artist was co-written by Scott Kavanagh and Christopher Novais. His second, Think • Do • Say, hits store shelves October 1, 2019.Read more by Ron Tite