Marketing's Creative Suicide


Scientists, beware. Artistic marketers are hardheaded. Don't expect them to sit dutifully in second chair. Photo: Alejandro Alvarez.

For a while now, science has been the boss of marketing.

If you have doubts, check out Leadtail’s CMO Influencer List. There you’ll see the frontrunners hold engineering, statistics, and computer science degrees. The secret to their success? It isn’t a pocketful of Big Ideas. It’s STEM…The new and improved Madison Avenue.

It’s mind-bending…and rather exciting. Still, there’s something deeply troubling about this trajectory. It seems marketing has dropped everything that doesn’t scale.

Where has all the creativity gone?

A Look Inside the Marketing Lab

Today’s marketers work in a noisy world. Every day, they navigate unruly realities (like martech explosions and data tsunamis). This ruckus can’t be tamed with a dab of Brylcreem, a snappy tagline, and a dirty martini. Nope. This situation calls for science, big time.

And marketers are determined to deliver. Every day they’re testing hypotheses, engineering processes, analyzing data, monitoring metrics, and optimizing, well, everything. While others worry about artificial intelligence (AI) eating their jobs for lunch, scientifically minded marketers are finding ways to become machinery’s first mate.

They’re already applying AI to personalize customer experiences. How long before they’ve mastered bot-to-bot marketing and mixed reality portals?

No one can deny the inventiveness of modern marketing’s scientific pursuits. But this particular breed of ingenuity seems markedly different from the creativity of Albert Einstein’s and Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific breakthroughs.

In fact, some experts say modern creativity is on a steep decline. According to authors Mike Fitzsimons and Sue Bradley, humanity is fast becoming unable to invent and innovate, due to a cultural “lobotomy.” This phenomenon has built up over time, with the repeated divorce of creativity from logic.

Fitzsimons and Bradley say industrialization is a big contributor to this trend, because it places more value on people’s ability to replicate rather create. The result? Workplaces that silo “creatives” from “business” workers. In corporations, “business” workers (scientific marketers included) wield the most power because their contributions are financially measurable. Creatives, on the other hand, spend their time on “arts and crafts” activities – outside mainstream economics.

Today, many marketers channel their ingenuity to design user-friendly websites, devise optimization experiments, and develop engaging apps. Tremendous achievements, to be sure. But something disturbing happens when these types of accomplishments become the only ones CMOs talk about. It sends a polarizing message: The only creativity with credibility is the scientific kind.

And, my friends, this is happening in plenty of marketing organizations.

A Creative Backlash is Brewing

Marketing engineers don’t appear to be worried about any resentment bubbling up from the creative corners of their organizations. Still, artistic marketers are hardheaded. Don’t expect them to sit dutifully in second chair.

Lately, the conversation is heating up around creativity’s disturbing recession – and the simultaneous ascent of technology and process. Take a look at recent headlines: “Project Work is Killing Creative Innovation,” “The Future of Creativity in an Automated World,” “Don’t Let an Obsession With Data Kill Your Content Marketing,” and the like.

Even B2B content agencies are raging against the machine. Take Velocity Partners, Content Agency of the Year at last year’s Content Marketing Awards. Over the years, Velocity has consistently poked the enterprise content bear, hoping to rouse industrialized organizations from their highly optimized content coma. (Rock on, Doug Kessler.)

Last month, Content Marketing Institute (CMI) founder Joe Pulizzi lambasted a Marketing Dive article for labeling VR and AR as “must-have” types of “creativity” for marketers: “[T]echnology doesn’t usually help our storytelling...it destroys its possibilities,” he wrote in the May 26 issue of CMI’s newsletter.

This is just a glimpse of the groundswell to come. My prediction: As scientific CMOs go about their business, industrializing marketing (and reducing everything to a “process”), they’ll stoke the fires of rebellion in many artistic bellies. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see torrents of impassioned pleas, gut-churning confessionals, and subversive manifestos flooding the web.

It will be tempting to dismiss these outcries as expressions of embittered, old-school marketers (suffering from digital denial). However, I suspect plenty of these dissidents will be creatives who have worked hellishly hard to become data-literate and operationally savvy…only to discover their scientific colleagues lack a reciprocal curiosity for the “softer” art of marketing.

Yes, folks, this can – and probably will – happen, even in the most collaborative of environments. And as the work of graphic designers, professional writers, art directors, content marketers, videographers, animators, and others is valued solely for its bottom-line results – and not for its creator’s artistic choices – I’m afraid there will be plenty of disillusionment to pass around.

The Steep Cost of Marketing Science

How many marketers today would start down the path of scientific marketing if they knew their cost of passage would be creative silence?

I’m not advocating an “art-for-art’s-sake” ideology. I am, after all, a marketer. At the end of the day, at the bottom of the “funnel,” or somewhere down the road, we’re trying to sell something. Any marketer attempting to do this without data, analytics, and technology would be a fool.

But it’s equally foolish to believe science will singlehandedly “personalize” marketing. For every marketer who doesn’t actually believe this, there are plenty more acting like they do. We talk a lot about making B2B marketing more “human,” but how are we going about it, exactly? What portion of each day do we spend wringing marketing science for all it’s worth? And how many working hours do we pass flexing our imaginative muscles? Uh huh. Right.

Yet who has time to diddle around, mind-mapping concepts and trailblazing ideas while data is amassing, technology is exploding, and disruptions are surfacing – all at breakneck speed? Marketers have to keep up. I get it. I truly do.

But stop for moment and consider this: Do we really feel comfortable turning our next cartoon campaign over to a bot? This is the direction we’re racing down today, as if it’s the greatest thing imaginable – as if it can feasibly be implemented next week.

In the meantime, how many ingenious ideas have been pushed down, deprioritized, and waved away like a swirl of annoying gnats?

In-House Artistry Loses Its Home

We tell ourselves that our creativity isn’t going anywhere. For sure, it’s a comforting thought: We can set our ingenuity gently aside and pick it up again whenever we want. But hold on…let’s remember where we are. Take a quick look around at enterprise marketing’s measure-everything domain. You’ll see rapid-fire test-and-learn’s, insanely consistent outputs to scale, and industrialized efficiency in its shining glory.

Would you dare to leave your creativity unattended here? Where would it fit? Unless you can get a STEM merit badge for something, there’s no dedicated desk. (There is, however, a designated bin where imaginative ideas go to be “recycled.”)

This is the habitat in which brands are currently attempting to build in-house creative shops. This effort extends beyond bolstering a scrappy team of graphic designers. Left and right, big brands are yanking their business from external agencies, putting their creative budgets to work within their own walls.

Remember Pepsi’s controversial Kendall Jenner ad? Yep. Home grown.

Clearly, Pepsi lacked the sanity check of an external perspective (of which agencies, too, have been guilty). Even more interesting is why firms like Pepsi are deciding to produce such marketing in-house. Maybe these marketers want to one-up the machines by delivering value in a way that’s uniquely human. Or maybe they want a head start on Workforce 2020. (The World Economic Forum ranks “creativity” as number three in the top 10 skills for workers.)

Why, then, aren’t marketers growing and nurturing their team’s creative talent? Maybe they’re too worried about next month’s website traffic and pipeline numbers…

Scientific Tips for Managing the Unmanageable

CMOs who are truly visionary will recognize that building employees’ artistic prowess is a smart strategy. But it’s not a matter of deciding today, and doing tomorrow.

First, enterprises need to establish that they’re courageous enough to hire, embrace, and fortify creative talent. This may not sound a like a big deal…but just wait until the new talent wants to challenge – or (egads!) dismantle – something scientific organizations are in love with. These moments are failsafe tests of an enterprise’s courage.

Being willing to go with the flow of new creative directions is just a start. Companies also need to keep and engage these talented individuals. They must understand how to recognize, stimulate, and develop them.

Admittedly, these are feats scientific marketers may not be equipped to do. (If it were otherwise, B2B marketing consultant Ardath Albee probably would have fewer clients asking her to provide “editorial guidance” to their writers.)

Nevertheless, marketing engineers do their best to contain what they don’t understand, packaging creativity in uniform bundles and process schemas. For their interactions with creatives, they have a heap of templates, gadgets, and performance data, mere clicks away. Also within reach: project briefs, spreadsheets, and peer examples, intended to channel the imagination. Well-intended, certainly. But as effective as we might want them to be? It depends on what “effective” means. There’s no guarantee these logic-laden tools and processes won’t completely suffocate creativity, resulting in lackluster content.

Not that hardcore marketing scientists will notice.

Right now, marketing leaders are terribly interested in helping machines learn. But what about developing their creative people – in brazenly non-scientific ways?

For many marketers, this is a squishy proposition. After all, creativity tends to flourish outside operational processes and standard benchmarks – which makes it largely unmeasurable. Indeed, creatives hold a vulnerable position inside a marketing machine. Inside the giant, shining apparatus, artistry’s finer points are immaterial, and their advocates sound a little deranged…or at the very least, a lot delinquent.

In Search of Invisible Genius

Fortunately for STEM-savvy folks, creativity usually wanders around the marketing lab incognito.

Gordon MacKenzie’s conveys this idea brilliantly in Orbiting the Giant Hairball. In a chapter cleverly titled, “What You Don’t See Is What You Get,” MacKenzie compares creative incubation to what happens inside a dairy cow. To a typical observer, MacKenzie says, a cow appears to spend many unproductive hours in the pasture. Yet during these “idle” moments, the cow’s creative juices are actually hard at work, performing “the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.”

Because the cow’s “evidence of creation” (or milk-making efficiency) can’t be seen or measured in the pasture, it can’t be managed. Drawing on MacKenzie’s line of thought, whatever a cow does when it’s not hooked up to a milking machine escapes industrialization (or at least it did in 1998, when Orbiting the Giant Hairball was published, which was, incidentally, long before Connected Cows became a thing).

Photo: “Dairy Cow” by Derrick Story via Flickr

MacKenzie’s cow has a lot in common with creative marketers. Because creativity’s inner workings bypass the “hairball” of corporate policies and procedures, they’re virtually invisible – and pretty much unmanageable. Indeed, calculating the ROI on concepting time might sound comparatively easier to accomplish.

That creative incubation is essentially unmeasurable isn’t the only reason scientific marketers find it unsettling. In data-driven marketing organizations, artistry can feel like rebellion. Whenever marketers follows their imaginations, they’re pursuing a path that’s incomprehensible to others. Their aims are largely obscure. Their creative activity may not obviously roll up under the short-term, direct response goals everyone else is pursuing.

Where does this leave marketing artists? Basically, “team player” setting populated by a scientific majority, dreaming up imaginative “distractions” borders on bad behavior.

Artistic marketers are well aware of how their scientific colleagues perceive them. But cultivating and sharing their ideas – no matter how far-flung – is like breathing to them. It isn’t something they choose to do. It’s who they are.

So, when the marketing lab gets too stifling, creative marketers will move on. (“Ad Contrarian” Bob Hoffman says this is already happening in ad agencies, which have become “corporatized.”) Where artistic marketers will go next is unclear. Unless something radically changes, they’ll probably become free agents, a fast-growing group that currently represents 35% of the U.S. workforce.

How long will marketers persist in “scientizing” their creative contributors? What if the tables were turned, and scientific marketers were “schooled” in creativity every day of the workweek? Would they last as long as their artistic colleagues have so far, under reverse conditions?

Recovering Marketing’s Creative Color

Most of us already know the “art or science” juxtaposition poses a false dilemma. Nevertheless, very smart people around the world are still talking about it. There’s a good reason why: Putting science at the top of marketing’s pyramid doesn’t feel as good as it once did.

We should pay attention to this niggling feeling, because it isn’t nostalgic. Quite the contrary. It’s profoundly forward-thinking.

The scientific skills we’re working so hard to master now might just be the stuff robots end up doing for us in a few years. Where will marketing be then?

Let’s stop tomorrow’s regret in its tracks and adjust the balance before it’s too late.

Marketing doesn’t have to be art or science, digital math or emotional magic. It should always be “and.”

Silo-smashing and scheduled collaborations between the “scientists” and “artists” are good moves, but they won’t be enough. For marketing to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and beyond, leaders must create a climate of mutual respect, reciprocal learning, and authentic recognition.

Does your marketing organization have a bias against creativity? Start chipping away at it now. Recognize that in a high-tech, AI-powered world, brands will need the power of exceptional ideas to break the noise barrier.

Find time and space to put creativity first.

Look beyond short-term goals and encourage teams to explore new ideas and forge fresh paths to long-term change. Open your mind to anecdotal observations, loose connections, and leaps of faith.

Initially, it might feel messy and maybe even pointless. Nevertheless, keep moving.

Know that each strange step takes you closer to the future – while those blind to detours walk away from it.

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