Is creativity in the marketing industry on a slow death march? Go to any marketing conference or seminar these days and you are likely to hear someone lament declining creative standards and the loss of ‘brand magic’.
Financial pressures have put a squeeze on marketers’ ability to unleash their creative instincts, but of greater concern is the role of technology and automation. The growing influence of programmatic media buying, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) have changed the way marketers perform their jobs, potentially putting creativity and independent thought at risk.
HSBC’s former head of marketing in EMEA Philip Mehl hit on this point in a recent Marketing Week roundtable when he declared: “Marketing used to be a creative challenge but it’s a data challenge now.” Mehl argued that brands today primarily compete on how well they can target consumers, rather than on the quality of their ideas.
He also suggested that the flood of branded content across all channels was responsible for lowering the bar for creativity. “When I think of TV ad breaks 20 years ago, probably six out of seven spots were entertaining – now it’s more likely to be one out of seven,” he said. “Marketers have lost a lot of the skill of storytelling and the art of having an impact that actually creates a memory.”
These comments echo a complaint by Dan Izbicki, creative excellence director at Unilever, who dismissed much of the marketing profession’s creative output as “terrible” during the IPA Effectiveness Week conference last November.
“There’s an assumption [in our industry] at the moment that just because everybody has got a camera and access to a YouTube channel, suddenly everybody is a creative director – that’s clearly not true,” he said. “That’s why most advertising is terrible and most films are not very good. [Creativity] is a precious skill.”
These marketers are not alone in identifying a direct correlation between technological advancement and declining creative standards. In a book published last year entitled ‘Lobotomy: The Marginalisation of Creativity and How to Become Human Again’, business analysts Mike Fitzsimons and Sue Bradley argue that the industrial revolution “left a huge sociological and psychological scar” by creating an overly rigid dichotomy between the rational and the creative.
The business culture that emerged rewarded rational thought and logic at the expense of creativity, the book claims, as financial targets took prominence and companies wrongly separated “business people” from “creative people”. Fitzsimons believes that factors such as automation and AI have the potential to accelerate this trend.
“There is a risk that the uniqueness that creativity brings to the world and its decision-making process is being marginalised by what I would call continual, systemic automation, where everything now is being targeted in terms of [turning it into] a process,” he says. “That includes creativity. Certainly, artificial intelligence is being used in a way that almost makes the essential element of being human less viable.”
Fitzsimons says that increased automation could undermine the distinctive nature of brands and reduce the scope for innovation. “Creativity is about the infinite – it’s about things that you have never thought about and making connections that have never been made,” he says.
“While some systems can bring a bit of that to the game, most systems don’t. They basically automate what’s already known and therefore you almost get a race to the bottom where everybody knows the same thing but no one has the edge – they don’t know the next thing. That only arrives by giving humans the space to use the creative side to their mind and then by knotting that together with the already well developed logical and rational processes that we have.”
Despite this outlook, Fitzsimons notes that some of the big technology giants such as Google have succeeded in creating a workplace culture of creativity. “They are on the edge of new products all the time so they know they need creative input, but they are also heavily systemic,” he says. “There are things to be learned from these companies about giving [people] time to be creative and showing that you value it as a business.”
Richard Waterworth, director of marketing in EMEA for YouTube, which is owned by Google, insists that creativity remains “more of an art than a science” and that it should sit alongside automation rather than be consumed by it. He concedes, though, that finding the right balance is an ongoing challenge.
“For a long time, even before the disruption of digital media, the advertising industry lived by the motto ‘right place, right time, right message’,” he says. “We have seen huge advances in the first two, largely owing to developments in the programmatic space, but we’re still navigating the last, and that is the key to maintaining brand magic.”
Waterworth cites YouTube’s recent ‘Made for You’ campaign as an example of automation and creativity coming together for optimum impact. The campaign featured 18 of the platform’s self-made ‘creators’, including musicians, comedians and fashion vloggers. YouTube then used data and retargeting to decide which combination of adverts would best resonate with target viewers, both online and in cinemas.
“This is a great example of how online data can play a fundamental role in improving creativity, not just for digital formats but traditional media too,” says Waterworth.
Most companies lack the resources of Google, of course, but it is incumbent on all brands to find the right balance between creativity and automation. In January, Skipton Building Society launched a TV advertising campaign for the first time in a decade with a spot that urges customers to take a ‘pause moment’ and think about their financial futures.
Commercial director Ian Cornelius says that while the business is automating some of its processes and making increased use of data, it is conscious of the need to pitch its new campaign on an emotional level. “Data is more powerful than it has ever been and there is a place for it, but it can’t give you the whole answer,” he says.
“It’s hard to emotionally engage with data – it’s not very good at helping you understand people’s emotions. There’s no substitute for getting really close to your customers, talking to them and understanding what’s important to them. Data helps more from a validation point of view or a targeting point of view, but it doesn’t really give you that rich insight to enable you to build a creative platform. Being close to your customers does.”
Skipton worked closely with its advertising agency BJL to impart these customer insights and ensure the campaign achieved the right tone of voice for the brand. BJL creative director Richard Pearson believes agencies can help brands to take a step back from automated processes and think about how best to communicate with consumers.
“In some ways that’s what a creative [agency’s] job has always really been – to try to translate the facts and things that a brand wants to tell people, into a way that consumers are going to connect with and understand, and feel emotionally,” he says.
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is another brand that has chosen to refresh its advertising this year following a long period away from screens. Kellogg’s has invested £10m in a nine-month campaign for the brand after a five-year break in commercial marketing activity in the UK. This includes TV adverts featuring real people talking about how they like to eat and serve Corn Flakes.
Gareth Maguire, marketing director at Kellogg UK & Ireland, says that in order to achieve a fresh and creative approach with the campaign, his team tried to avoid being overly nostalgic about the 93-year-old brand. This involved thinking about the way that technology has changed people’s media consumption habits. The brand’s social media activity around the campaign involves asking people to share their views on what makes the ‘perfect bowl’ of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
“Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has remained one of our core sellers because it resonates with people from their childhood days,” notes Maguire. “Where the challenge lies with this campaign is to reignite that conversation and to jog people’s memories. Therefore our marketing focus has had to shift to reflect the way our consumers are digesting advertising messages.”
Blake Cahill, global head of digital and social marketing at Philips, agrees that brands need to adjust their approach to creativity to take into account new consumer behaviours. This includes reassessing how marketers think about storytelling and content to ensure they can immediately grab attention online.
“Looking at recent Facebook stats, you have 1.7 seconds to draw someone in to watch a video,” he says. “In that sense the content and the creative is still the trigger, but it has been chopped up into lots of bits, rather than [a traditional] 30-second or one-minute spot.”
Cahill adds that brands should think about these content formats at the very start of the creative process. “You have to go into the creative briefing process with the different formats and technologies as inputs for the creative you need to make, because if you cut down [creative work] after the fact – retro-fitting round holes into square pegs – that doesn’t work.”
To coincide with the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January, Philips launched a digital campaign featuring children talking about different global issues, such as healthcare. Cahill explains that the campaign, which has attracted around half a million video views, involved taking a risk by eschewing the normal format of marketing campaigns during WEF, which tend to feature political and business leaders. Instead, Cahill and his team had to back their creative instincts – and convince other Philips executives – that the campaign approach was the right way forward.
“Content and creativity is always going to be the kernel at the heart of anything you do,” he says. “Technology and automation just allows everyone to be potentially more targeted and do things at greater scale.”
So what can marketers expect in the years ahead, and how can they push the case for creativity as processes become increasingly automated? Ian Liddicoat, global head of data technology and analytics at media agency Zenith, predicts that AI technology will soon permeate all aspects of the customer journey, changing the way marketers do their jobs.
“That will be a major area of focus for a lot of brands and technology companies, and there will also be a lot more integration between organisations like ours and the big technology companies,” he says. “The fact that we can push a machine learned result to a DSP (demand-side advertising platform) today would not have happened even two years ago.”
He adds: “We’re going to be pushing more machine learned results to more different forms of technology very actively, which means that what the consumer sees is a closed loop process that simply delivers a more personalised, relevant and timely communication.”
Despite this prediction, Liddicoat does not believe that technology will automatically undermine the role of creativity. He notes, for example, that Zenith is now conducting controlled tests that involve using machine learning to deconstruct text, video and graphics into multiple permutations, before reconstructing them into different creative executions targeted at different sets of consumers.
“My view is that [automation] empowers creative thinking – it does not in any way reduce the importance of a very strong creative idea that’s tied to a strategy and then executed through technology and data,” says Liddicoat.
“It requires new talent, new processes and new ways of working, where strategists and creative thinkers become more used to working with data in a much shorter cadence that’s being generated from a machine learned result.”
On the client-side, Aviva’s head of marketing James Turner claims that increased automation is “an exciting challenge” that is generating new opportunities across the business. “Some of the automation is definitely freeing up time for us to focus on being more genuinely creative and personalised with our activity rather than just cranking the handle to get stuff live,” he adds.
“We are definitely learning there are new processes and procedures that we need to follow and different skill sets that we need to hire. Some of the more traditional campaign management and creative roles are evolving really quickly.”
Turner says there is still no simple answer to the age-old question of whether marketing is an art or a science. Ultimately, automation is driving up the performance of marketing in all its various forms.
“I don’t think [the art or the science] are mutually exclusive,” he declares. “With the data comes more scope to be genuinely relevant and do so through great creative. Given the way that great brands are doing it, consumer expectations are really high, so there’s a significant benchmark for us to achieve.”