Can marketers be both more productive and more creative?

Can marketers be both more productive and more creative?

You have two pressing concerns: you need a great, creative idea to sell a concept and you need it in 15 minutes.

That’s a tough call. The trouble is, that being asked to be more creative is like being asked to “be funny”. Yet finding a balance between the commercial pressures to be more productive and creative simultaneously is a key challenge that marketers must address. The secret, say experienced marketers, is to not sacrifice one for the other, and they offer some advice on how to achieve that.

Dave Stevens, Founder and Chair of the B2B network the Business Marketing Club, believes that marketers can improve their creativity but that the competing demands of the commercial world pose a danger to it.

“Creativity is vital to marketers. It’s so easy in business today to lose your creative spark. It gets systematized out of you,” says Dave.

Dave Stevens

“The drivers of productivity in marketing may well get more work done but may not get smarter work done. If handled inadequately – and they frequently are in my experience – they hamper creativity. As a Chief Marketing Officer you have to constantly fight your ground and help your team,” he says.

Creativity is productivity

Mark Perkins, Creative Director, W, believes much as Dave does that the formula for improving productivity involves boosting creativity as, in marketing, they equate to the same thing.

“The awful truth is that most marketing doesn’t work,” says Mark.

“Improving productivity from your creative and strategy is about asking the right questions, like: Who is buying this? Why? How can the product be a hero? Who can we pick a fight with? These are the insights and observations that facilitate a discussion that reveals a hidden truth about the product or service. You can often spot the campaigns where these have not been asked,” he says.

Creative blocks

The threats to creativity that marketers must resist are multi-faceted. Often, it is the approach that matters. In his 20 years of experience in B2B marketing, including with Telefonica O2, Barclays and BT, Dave has identified several common aspects of business that stymie the flow of ideas.

“A common one is the ‘everything goes through me’ hierarchical culture,” he says, in which decisions are centralised around a leader.

Another is talent. “When hiring, the focus is often on the skills and experience of the people rather than the chemistry where you align the right people to the right project.”

He also highlights rigid marketing plans that halt the ongoing generation of new ideas; meetings that are consistently in one place, at the same time, chaired by the same person and with an identical agenda; and of course the killer of all creativity, where creative has to go through too many layers in which “New ideas can be destroyed in a rush to blandness”.

Mark agrees, saying, “We try to involve as many people across the agency as possible and beyond. People think in different ways and in a brainstorm the most vocal are not always the most thoughtful.”

Dave has also come across marketers who feel inhibited in their organization because sharing their thoughts often results in being shouted down.

Top tips for boosting creativity

There are ways to improve creativity within the workplace, and some of them are counter to the received wisdom when it comes to boosting productivity.

Claire Bridges

Claire Bridges, author and Chief Spark and Founder of creative training consultancy Now Go Create, has trained some 15,000 marketers since starting her firm following a 20-year career in PR.

She offers this advice: “Often a lack of time is cited as a barrier to creative ideas. But increasingly a more agile and speedy way of ideating is the norm. Try a design sprint for your next project, made popular by Google. This is a proven methodology for solving problems through designing, prototyping, and testing ideas with users.”

She also believes collaboration is key to improving productivity and should start at the beginning.

“Bring in every creative partner from the start of the process. With my experience from working in PR, the lead agency is often, though not always, the ad agency, and it drives the creative and other disciplines are viewed as ‘add-ons’ later down the line.

“However, the well-respected annual WARC 100 report reviews the world’s most effective campaigns and its number one finding from this year shows that effective campaigns have PR ‘baked in’,” says Claire.

Critical thought

Dave agrees. He says, “Be prepared to share problems – that’s an inclusive way of getting people together. Make people feel it is safe to take risks; failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new. And don’t confuse the process with the goal. Making great marketing is the goal, not a better process.”

Mark offers this direct advice.

He says, “Creativity can’t be rushed. Create teams of three people at different levels of the company and give them three or four days to think. Give them a detailed brief that answers the important questions, includes campaigns that might inspire them and an example of what would be a bad idea.”

He also offers advice on where things can go wrong.

“Brainstorm for one hour only. Any longer is too long. And remember that data doesn’t give rich, human insights. It’s just figures,” he says.

Then there is the advice we instinctively know but often forget.

Mark says, “Take a step back and burst your bubble by seeing your brand through the eyes of consumers. Lots of good marketers live and breathe the brand so they see it very differently from everyone else and won’t criticise it. And remember that the other part of creative thought is critical thought. Ask yourself: Who will care about this idea? Will it change behaviour? And so on?”

Finally, Claire offers some sage advice on creativity versus originality.

She says, “I think sometimes we can become too obsessed with the brand new rather than building on what we already have. An example of this is Keven The Carrot, the character created for Christmas by supermarket brand Aldi, following a well-trodden path of creating recognisable, loveable characters in advertising and communications.’s meerkat work is into its second decade now and the public shows no sign of tiring of it.”