Art & Commerce: Creative Differences

Agencies must be creative. It’s their raison d’etre, why they get hired. Ironically, they shortchange themselves when they don’t recognize that each discipline—advertising, Web design and database marketing—communicates with end-using customers in its own way and requires a different type of creativity.

A little Latin lesson provides the key to unlocking these differences. In ordinary usage, we communicate to someone, as if the activity were transportation, but the “com” in the word “communication” means “with” or “together,” denoting the collaboration of the activity.

We all know the truth of this, firsthand, in our personal life. Communication between parent and child or doctor and patient, for example, emerges from, makes real and reinforces those relationships and their assumptions.

Public communication is the same. All journalism, for example, addresses citizens. It identifies topics of public import, presents observed facts and credible authorities, and conjures up rational agents who come to our own conclusions.

In marketing, too, each discipline communicates “with” in its own way. Advertising, Web design and database marketing conjure us up differently —as audience, visitor and profile—and the type of creativity that each requires differs accordingly.

Since its advent a century and a half ago, the creative métier of advertising is representation, depicting some passage in time to some desirable future state. In telling such stories to audiences, the “with” is not especially visible, but certainly does exist. In every impression by every ad, the consumer must devote her attention, impute meaning to the message and then determine whether to apply that meaning to herself. It happens in an instant—and if it doesn’t happen, the ad doesn’t work.

In contrast, the creative métier of Web design is simulation, enabling visitors to learn, decide or accomplish something. Its creative task is to anticipate visitors’ various consideration/decision processes and then architect the site so those processes flow easily and intuitively.

Unlike representation which pushes messages out, simulation pulls visitors in; unlike the “masculine” tradition of targeting, capturing and penetrating, the Web requires a “feminine” approach of attracting, listening and involving. Filling space that captures attention and creating space that enables intentions are fundamentally different types of creativity.

Database marketing inverts creativity in another way. It began as a cold calculus of customers’ purchasing patterns, asking how recently, how frequently and how much did they spend, in order to target and optimize returns on marketing’s costs. Starting in the 1970s the explosion of data and the democratization of data processing enabled a new type of creativity: the query.

An early example: All casinos segmented their customers by how recently, how often and how much they gambled, until Harrah’s asked “who” from data that revealed honeymooners, retirees, families on vacation, collegians on spring break, etc. The entire industry reorganized around segment-specific lifestyle marketing. Revolutionary queries are rare, but breakthrough ones, e.g., which customers should I fire, how do I get speed to volume, are now the hallmark of this discipline.

Stories, paths and queries are types of creativity that come from the different relationships that the disciplines establish in communicating with customers as audience, visitor and profile. Each discipline is busy leveraging its own “in-between” while the multi-line agency has the opportunity and challenge of harnessing them.

Types are dissimilar by definition; they do not combine. Hence, the menus in capabilities presentations and the mash-ups of new business pitches. Perhaps there should be an enterprise platform for practitioners dedicated to disciplinary alignment around standard and/or client-specific goals. Perhaps one should separate branding from the disciplines that express it and their types of creativity. Certainly, a bonus scheme that rewards managers for revenue they source as well as revenue they service would help.

Part of the solution is certainly anchoring creativity in communicating “with.” That perspective crosses the disciplines precisely because it respects and leverages their differences. The result: creativity is no longer singular, but plural. It’s a typically post-modern situation: nothing is one thing any more.