Uncreative and proud

by Tom Albrighton 17 January 2011 Popular

Recently, I ‘fired’ a client whose expectations I couldn’t meet, amicably abandoning the project after a single draft without asking for payment.

They were an office-supplies company who wanted a sales letter. Their sector is highly competitive, with buyers needing a strong incentive to switch suppliers, whether financial or otherwise. Without big savings or super service on the table, it’s not worth taking a chance on a change of supplier.

My client had a strong sell. Reasoning that their target audience (purchasing professionals) wouldn’t want to waste their time with silly wordplay, irrelevant metaphors or high-flown ideas, I went for a tight, concise list of reasons to choose them. Not a word was wasted; every sentence communicated a real, concrete benefit. Structurally, the letter was very similar to the very first example given in Drayton Bird’s Sales Letters That Sell – a letter that pulled in billions for American Express.

The client didn’t like it. They wanted something more different from their existing stuff – something more ‘creative’. Since I’d submitted my best, most practical solution, it seemed more ethical (and far easier) to walk away than to wilfully write something I didn’t think would work.

Diff’rent strokes

I’m sure someone else will be able to help them. As I’ve blogged previously, there are lots of different types of copywriting and copywriters.

Although I do use the word ‘creative’ on this site, creativity isn’t a big part of my value proposition. I always hope that prospective clients will be able to discern my strengths from my experience, samples and clients: long copy, tone of voice, corporate, business-to-business, online.

With a publishing background, I’m much more suited to larger projects where structure, tone and usability are important. If you want professional yet informal, informative yet accessible, I’m all over it like a cheap suit. And I won’t start whimpering if I have to manage a project with 100 keywords, 1000 images or 100,000 words. But if you want a three-word slogan for Apple Tango, I’m probably not your man. (I’d probably suggest ‘apple bubble solution’.)

But it’s not just about horses for courses. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the whole concept of ‘creativity’. Let me try to explain why.

The pitfall of ‘crazytivity’

The creative answer isn’t necessarily right. If something radically new will communicate or sell better, then it’s the right way to go – and you need someone who can deliver it. But there are many situations where innovation just isn’t needed, and many very competent professionals who do a lot of great work without being ostentatiously ‘creative’. Their stuff might not win awards, but clients love it, and it works for them too. I know a freelance designer who has always loudly insisted she’s not creative; she’s consistently in demand. She gets things done.

When creativity falls short, it can do more harm than good. Management thinker Edward de Bono proposes three ways in which creativity can fail, one of which is ‘crazytivity’: coming up with an idea that seems very creative, but actually has little value. As de Bono says:

Creative people often solve many problems – except the one they have been asked to solve. The combination of low novelty and high value is always more important than that of high novelty and low value.

In other words, it’s better to have a modestly creative idea that does the business than a super-creative idea that doesn’t. But that’s a difficult idea to swallow if your self-image is that of ‘a creative’.

Everyone is creative somehow…

Are some people creative, and others not? Listening to some marketing professionals talk, it’s as though the world were divided into creatives and, presumably, ‘uncreatives’ – like priests and the laity, or saints and mortals. And woe betide you if you try to direct or criticise the creative, for they work in mysterious ways.

Life isn’t really so black and white. Every job – every human activity – has a creative dimension, or can be done creatively. And every person has innate creativity that they use insofar as they are able, putting it into the task at hand. Looking after a household or a family, fixing things, making food and hundreds of other tasks all benefit from creative thinking. It’s not just artists who have new ideas that can educate, help or inspire those around them.

…but peak creativity is rare

Having said that, there are some professional people who can consistently find radically new, clearly superior or aesthetically delightful solutions to the problems they face. They are highly creative in the strictest sense of the word, using their imagination to bring something totally new into being – and add enormous value as a result.

'Vince, the client wants to make some of the flowers blue. Could you do that before tomorrow's meeting?'

Such people are rare, as Ad Contrarian recently noted. I’ve only met one in my life so far, a graphic designer. His approach was completely different from every other designer I’d ever met – always rigorous, always uncompromising, always surprising. Having worked in top London agencies, he went freelance, then eventually quit design and now works in retail – I think because few clients or managers could live up to his standards.

The rest of us, and I include myself, should really think long and hard before describing ourselves as ‘creative’. But many are only too keen to give themselves the label, regardless of ability, as this article at The Onion notes.

Many’s the time I’ve shaken my head over a so-called ‘creative concept’ from an agency chosen by one of my clients. Such agencies are lucky that so many firms are happy to pay for something ‘creative’ without looking too closely at the strength of the ideas, the benefit they’ll deliver or indeed the effort that’s gone into them.

Creativity as self-defence

But the self-delusion doesn’t end at self-image. Having declared themselves ‘creative’, some individuals come to see themselves in an almost messianic light, blessing the poor client with their genius. From there it’s a short step to berating those unenlightened clients who can’t understand or accept their ‘challenging’ ideas.

This defensive stance is an admission of failure. Communication is the responsibility of the speaker, not the listener. If people don’t understand you, you have not expressed yourself effectively. Geniuses like Van Gogh are misunderstood; the rest of us just haven’t tried hard enough.

Moreover, contempt for the client is a shaky foundation for a productive relationship. Although most marketers (including me) have lamented the client who ‘doesn’t know what’s good for them’, we have to give clients the benefit of the doubt until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Are we so sure we’d think differently in their position?

The defensive, ivory-tower mentality of some creatives might have its roots in higher-education establishments where art and work are seen as opposite, not complementary. Graduates in creative disciplines are forced to ‘sell’ and ‘compromise’ their skills, which breeds resentment.

For some creative graduates, the slings and arrows of real-world business never shake the idea of creativity as a panacea. When you’re a hammer, the whole world is a nail. But true creatives have the confidence to know when creativity is needed, and when it’s not. For them, creativity is a tool rather than a mask.

Examine creativity

Socrates said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. I think the idea of creativity should be first up for examination.

Clients should think about why they demand creativity, or why they don’t, and whether they really need it. Marketing professionals should think about whether they really offer creativity, whether they should claim to and whether they need to. And maybe we should all consider whether the whole idea of ‘creativity’ is really that relevant or useful to the work we all have to do.

We shouldn’t be asking ‘is it creative?’ but ‘is it effective?’

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  • The way I see it, creativity as far as writing is concerned, is the ability to take a list of facts, selling points and general blurb and turn it into a piece of copy that both flows and addresses the issues at hand. Thus, as you rightly say, in this instance “silly wordplay, irrelevant metaphors or high-flown ideas” weren’t the answer. Sadly, your ex-client was unable to see that and had his/her own pre-conceived ideas of what he wanted, and that’s the worst type of client.

    I remember once when I was working at an ad agency as a ‘suit’ back in the day, this very brash Australian client phoned me one day and literally told me exactly what he wanted in terms of media and creative execution. Part of his demand was that we produce a 4 sided flyer as an insert for one of the Ms London type magazines that used to be handed out at stations. When I dared to offer my own opinion, very politely and professionally, namely that I didn’t think his approach would work and that I thought there might also be an issue involved with an insert, he barked at me “I’m not interested in your opinion mate, just do it”. Now, I could have just taken that one on the chin but instead I said “Er, can I ask why you use the services of an advertising agency?” (as clearly he knew more about the advertising game than we did) at which he waffled a bit but stuck to his guns. Glory be though, because a bit later the same day, my contact at the magazine came back and said they couldn’t do what the client had asked as it had environmental issues attached to it. Talk about music to my ears! As you can imagine, the subsequent call I put in to bang the brash git to rights was one of the most enjoyable ever!

  • As someone who has earned a half-decent living on the back of various job titles such as Creative Copywriter, Creative Director and Creative Partner, I think this is a marvellous post, Tom.

    I’ve banged on about this attitude of creative preciousness on more than one occasion (come in for some flak from those ivory towers of some who troll around over at The Drum too, I can tell you) There is no need; it invariably does not nail the brief and more often meets the so-called ‘creative’s’ agenda, not the client’s – an agenda inspired by an unwillingness or incapacity to take the most commercially appropriate route on behalf of the fee payer.

    And whilst being saddled with those job titles, I’ve always been a firm believer in anyone having a blinding idea that will meet the brief perfectly – the best ‘creatives’ are the non-precious, completely objective ones who can accept that sometimes, just maybe, the office dog may come up with another, better alternative to all that blue-sky tosh. When it comes to creativity in the agency world, the divisive ‘them and us’ attitude between accounts and studio should be ripped up, burned and forgotten about forever.

    That’s possibly where I veer slightly off your main point Tom and possibly where I have a slightly different take on the definition (whether it’s the true dictionary definition or not – I haven’t checked!). I still believe in creativity because for me, your first attempt at the sales letter for the office supplies company was creative. You still had to write the thing; you still had to craft those bullets and discard the fat to achieve what your vision of the client’s best solution was. For me that’s being creative. Any visual, intellectual and synapse-sparking solution to make people react the way you want them to is creative.

    And you certainly can’t get much more creative than turning a skeleton of 100 keywords into compelling, profit-making copy.

    I was going to say maybe it needs another word but I think you’ve nailed it in your post, Tom – the art world may benefit from a little ‘crazytivity’ from time to time, but the marketing world? When there are budgets and ROI at stake? No way.

  • Totally with you on this. Creativity is a funny concept – especially with business marketing. So many people say they offer it (designers, etc.) and so many companies say they want it applied to their business. Actual delivery (on both sides) is less than 5% I’d say.

    It’s a mix between the client not knowing what they really want when they spec ‘creative solution’ and not having the balls to use it if it gets offered. On a provider side, there is little creative delivery to the problem. ie. Making something look good or fluffing something up for marketing isn’t necessarily the answer to the problem.

    As for sacking clients, spot on. If you can’t value your own time / brand, how can you expect a client. It’s just a shame so many businesses employ experts then try to tell them how to do their job.

  • Thanks for this Tom. I’ve always tended to favour a pragmatic style over “blue sky” approaches, and it’s something that’s always nagged at the back of my mind.

    “Shouldn’t a copywriter be more creative?”
    “Shouldn’t you be better at spinning out a 3 word strapline that’s funny, effective and on-message?”
    “Why isn’t this piece a laugh-a-minute, rip-roaring rollercoaster that’s sending the client’s steel pipe fasteners off the shelves?”

    That’s not to say that I can’t or won’t pull out a little zanyness for the right client or product, when inspiration strikes, but my default has always been to produce effective, tight copy.

    Constantly questioning my approach isn’t a constructive mindset to have, so I’m quite glad to read something which confirms my standpoint.

  • Really great post Tom. Being more a big-info-project person rather than a slogan copywriter myself, I really appreciated your take. Knowing your strengths is key, and being able to identify strengths in a creative idea is even more important. I think sometimes people who don’t classify themselves as creative are intimidated by the out-‘n-out creative, believing there must be something they’re missing, when in actual fact that something doesn’t exist.

  • Hi Tom,

    Great post. I think it’s vital that freelancers know what they’re good at, and what they’re suited to.

    Although it can be hard to sack clients, it’s often best for everyone if you know when to say no.

  • For me, creative (the craft of designer and copywriter) is what makes an idea resonate with the customer and subsequently inspires an action. How crazy or straightforward that creative is depends entirely on what’s needed to communicate effectively with the audience.

    If your office supplies company really knew their audience (insight from data + research) then they may have had a point. However, I suspect they didn’t and simply wanted to play about with something ‘jazzy’. When you lose sight of your audience, you lose sight of effectiveness.

    As for the disappointment of clients buying creative without an idea… that’s a whole other topic.

    Creative Director, The Distillery @ Reading Room.

  • Vessel

    I think you’re trying to drum up a little business by telling clients what they want to hear. Sneaky!

  • I’ve worked with creatives all my life in the agency world and what I have always found is that clients are excited by creative thinking and are in love with the idea of having a bunch of highly talented creative types creating something they feel they could not achieve. Often creative does not focus on ‘the result the client needs’ and for many in business this is where the love affair with creative folk can end. Using emotion in writing to a target audience that sells is more important than something too creative. Well this is what I have found over the years.

  • The only potential problem of using Ogilvy’s original American Express letter as a model for your sales letter is that it is over 50 years old. Perhaps your (ex) client wanted something not necessarily creative, just modern. The chummy DM letter with Johnson boxes, underlinings, indents and numerous PSs seems tragically out of date these days.

  • I’m sure you’re right Kevin. In fact, it was when they instructed me to include the phrase ‘together we can make a difference’ to close the sale at the end that I realised their thinking was too cutting-edge for me ever to serve them effectively. As I said in the post, I know my limits.

  • Hi Tom

    Would your client have been interested in testing the response rates between a “creative” and “non-creative” approach, I wonder?

    Might have let you keep the business and produced some learnings they could use to improve their response rates in future.

  • “it was when they instructed me to include the phrase ‘together we can make a difference’ to close the sale at the end that I realised their thinking was too cutting-edge for me ever to serve them effectively”

    I saw a great one recently for a council -> “Where people matter”

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  • Nick Bulbeck

    Interesting article, Tom, and a viewpoint for which I have a lot of sympathy.

    Hand-waving notions about of “creativity” rears its ugly head in the world of recruitment too… I do a certain amount of work helping the long-term unemployed, and some of them have been saddled over the years with unrealistic expectations about what they can do with a CV. If they will only pack it with enough buzzwords, or give it enough “wow-factor” (whatever that may be), they will apparently take control of the mind of a business-owner and create a dream job for themselves that didn’t previously exist. Actually, a better way to grab the attention of recruitment decision-makers is just to speak clearly to them. Ironically, a CV that LACKS buzzwords will probably stand out in some postbags!

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