My work is fundamentally creative.
There are lots of analytical pieces, but at the end of the day, marketing is about making a connection with human beings. Human beings, who are not as predictable as marketers would like to think. Yes, there are lots of studies on consumer behavior and human drive where we can move the needle by tapping into those things that motivate buying behavior. But it seems that everyone is doing this, and the companies that ‘win’ the loyalty and sales are the ones that are more creative in their endeavors.
One area where there is a massive focus on creativity is in content marketing. As we enter this new decade, there’s an incredible amount of noise out there in this field: brands running digital publications, producing video series or podcasts, most of it is exactly that – noise. These brands follow formulas and deliver the same old same old that we’ve read, watched, and heard a million times before. At times, there’s nothing to distinguish one brand from another. There’s no distinct voice, no point of view.
So I am to dig deeper to provide something different. Something valuable, something relatable, something sharable.
But something that’s valuable, relatable, and sharable may take time and money. And, frankly, most brands don’t want to pay for that. One could compare the world of creative content to the early state of radio. Anyone with access to the tools could claim expertise in radio, but as it evolved, it was apparent that there were very few examples of radio shows that could hold an audience. And you need an audience to pay the bills. One podcast that has always stood out to me is This American Life. There are very few podcasts and radio shows that I can listen to for a full hour each week and even fewer that I will go back to listen to multiple times, but this is one of them. There is just something so consistently entertaining and thought-provoking about it.
Recently, I had the pleasure of having Mitch Joel on our Anatomy Of A Strategy podcast. Mitch’s own podcast, Six Pixels of Separation has been going strong (weekly) for nearly 14 years! I recall a conversation I had with Mitch a few years ago, where he pointed out a Google Talk with Ira Glass (of This American Life) in which the interviewer asks where he comes up with the programming week after week and Glass’ answer is still, to this day, amazing:
“Somebody will pitch a story that we all feel very excited about and that doesn’t go with any of the themes we have going on at the time, so we’ll just say ‘Let’s use that story as an anchor for some show’ and then we’ll concoct a theme that could plausibly contain it. And sometimes we’ll come up with 2 or 3 different themes that could plausibly contain it and we’ll have other stories left over from other shows that we couldn’t use and see if we can glue anything to it and then we’ll start on a search. And that search could take up to 3 or 4 months often and sometimes even more. Finding ideas for stories is very inefficient.
One of the things when you start to do creative work that nobody ever asks is, ‘Where are ideas going to come from?’ And you have this idea that they are just going to be sprinkled on your head like fairy dust… but you just have to surround yourself with a lot of stuff and a lot of ideas, because ideas lead to other ideas. So at one point, we’ll just go on a massive search…”
He then goes on to describe a very complex process with all sorts of questions and nuances that are unique to every story and every episode, including having to kill about a third to a half of everything they start. And he adds:
“You really can’t tell what’s going to work until you start to make that thing. It’s like you want lightning to strike as an industrial product (in the same spot) every week, and to do that, you just need to wander around in the rain…a lot.”
This is the key to creativity. It’s not a linear process and it’s not predictable. You need to give it time, space, and lots of encouragement. If you are held to pumping it out like a factory, you’re probably not going to nail it. And as most of us know, good ideas don’t come to you at the most opportune times. Just ask Katja Blichfeld, co-creator of High Maintenance. Coincidentally, Ira Glass also appears in the newest series of High Maintenance. Katja and her writing partner, Ben Sinclair have previously talked about keeping a waterproof notepad in the shower to catch those pesky ideas.
In one of my favorite TED Talks ever, author Elizabeth Gilbert describes a fantastic story where poet Ruth Stone would hear a poem thundering over the hills while she was working and have to “run like hell” to find paper and pen to capture it at the moment.
- Surrounding yourself with inspiration, stories, and ideas. At both Phlywheel and Truly, we’d immerse ourselves during our research and insights phase. I’d say that most of the ideas in this phase should be on-topic (if you are trying to come up with a great story on AR, surround yourself with conversations, articles, and experiences on AR), but you should also step outside of the narrow topic to get inspiration (think about AR uses from the perspective of the workplace, healthcare, education, or even recreation, for instance).
- Space to breathe and grow. You’ll go down a million paths that will lead you nowhere. There is no fairy dust, you’ll just need the space and time.
- A purpose. You need a direction. A point of view. A raison d’etre. For Ira Glass, it’s the constant search for stories that will change people’s perspectives. Having an end goal or a point of view will help focus you enough on what you want to convey. Then you just have to deal with the how.
As you are probably already thinking, this process is far too free-flowing and unpredictable for most companies out there. It’s the unfortunate reason why a lot of artists are starving and why the world is full of mundanity.
The good news is that there is a happy medium to be struck between completely unleashed creative, interesting content – that is “inefficient” as Glass puts it – and completely lifeless outputs of formulaic, mundane content. But the current pendulum favors the efficient (while complaining that the ROI is less than desirable on this particular output). What we need to work on is the message that it isn’t just any content that works. It’s content that actually adds value (a term that is understandable to organizations). And adding value takes more thought than a 2 week RFP or a couple of brainstorms. For more on keeping that content monster happy, check this out.