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A while back, I was having a conversation with John Warner. If you aren’t familiar with John, he is a consultant, venture capitalist, and all-round visionary. John mentioned the book, The Rise of the Creative Class. This kicked off a discussion of what exactly constitutes “creative.”

Our industry has always defined the term rather narrowly. In advertising, “creative” is the term for the people and processes by which promotional concepts are conceived, developed, and produced. The Rise of the Creative Class (and John) define the term more broadly. They would include engineers, architects, city planners, software developers… as well as all the fine arts related business disciplines—music and theater producers, performers, and designers, artists, sculptors, art galleries, film makers, novelists, journalists, blah, blah, blah. Now, I do not completely agree with John or the book. But the discussion has gotten me thinking. So, I’ve kinda been thinking about the components of this thing called “creative.”

The Idea! The single most important component of “creative” in our industry (and I would suggest in general) is the “concept.” It’s the big idea that invites the viewer, consumer, participant to look at something in a new way. Famous concepts from advertising history are things like “The Marlboro Man,” or “1984” as an analogy for the launch of MacIntosh. These are usually the aha at the end of a long period of staring at the product or problem in a state of hmmmmm. Generally, this piece of the creative process comes from assimilating unlike thoughts (like banks and cattle), adding something to something else (like soft flowers and very stern expressions), or stripping something down to its essence (like one word in a circle).

Execution. My old pal Charlie Barker used to love to say, “After all the meetings, all the discussions, all the concept sessions, all the thumbnails, all the smoke and mirrors, somebody has to write the ad.” He actually used to get on my nerves when he said that. But that’s another story. The deal is that once the concept is there in headline and thumbnail form, the ad only works…if it works. That’s where the skills come in of defining what “it” is and what “it” looks and sounds like, and how “it” impacts society, pools out into other media, into future campaigns, blah blah blah.

Craftsmanship. What if Michelangelo couldn’t draw? The Sistine Chapel ceiling would be nothing more than a nice idea. But he could draw. And paint. Now, what makes the ceiling great is Michelangelo’s vision of God and Creation. But what makes it magnificent is the artist’s skills, technique, and attention to detail (20 years’ worth of attention to detail).

Of course, in our industry, all of this only matters if you’ve identified and defined the right problem. That’s the part we call strategy. A lot of good-looking advertising fails because its concept doesn’t answer a question, or doesn’t answer the right question. It’s just “creative.”

So, how does all this apply outside of advertising? Well, I can see that some engineers, software developers, and sales professionals are creative, by the above criteria. And, I will also concede that not all advertising creatives qualify. That said, let’s not get too carried away with lumping every busker, barista, and bumper buffer (I just made that up for the sake of poetry…creative, ay) into a fiction called “the creative class.” But that’s just my opinion. You’re welcome to be wrong on this.

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