Why It's Never a Choice Between Being Creative and Being Commercial

Great marketing is about quality, not just relevance

I've always thought of advertising as one of the "creative arts." For some, this helps assuage an artistic ego—a pretense at making culture. For me, it's because the artistic side of the industry has always been a vital servant to its commercial intent. 

Creativity charms and cajoles. And in doing so, it earns the right for a brand's commercial message to be heard. It's the sugar that helps the marketing message go down. 

Marketing that relies solely on relevance—right message, right person, right time—can miss this. 

As fast as we build the tech to pump such ads out, so consumers seek the tech that blocks them. A robot war that no marketer wins. 

A recent article in The New York Times said the problem with modern advertising is that "people hate it" and that the rise of subscription-based content models shows people are "paying to avoid it." 

And it doesn't help that we're in a "golden age" of content. Our eyeballs are spoiled by everything from high-end television to low-brow memes. Advertising content pales by comparison. 

Marketing must prove its worth: offer value, be worthwhile—and worth attention—in its own right.

Relevance is part of that answer. And the quantity of our inputs has never been greater. But we must match it with the quality of our outputs. Big data needs big ideas. 

Simply put, great creative work performs better, commercially speaking. In his book The Case for Creativity, James Hurman observed that creatively awarded campaigns deliver 11 times the return on investment of non-creatively awarded campaigns, and that Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year companies outperform the stock market by a factor of 3.5. 

What's more, the effects of creativity can be felt relatively quickly. In 2015, Alessandro Michele was appointed as creative director of Gucci, a luxury marque which had become somewhat stale and staid. His bold modernization and democratization of the brand turned its fortunes around, seeing double-digit sales growth by the following year, and more than doubling revenues from €3898m to €8285m between 2015 and 2018. Creativity makes money.

At the other end of the spectrum, everyday brands like Birds Eye have also reaped the rewards of better, more creative advertising. The U.K. frozen food giant was declining at a rate of between 5 percent and 6 percent for three or four years in a row, but in 2018 returned to growth of 4 percent, thanks to an investment in creating an emotional connection with customers. Plus, the brand has reported that a shift to more creative marketing has helped boost average ROI by 24 percent.

Creative choices are not a matter of folly. They are made to lift the work up so that it competes with the content that people are choosing to consume.

Marketing must be good enough to interrupt Stumptown. To interrupt selfies on Instagram. To interrupt dance memes on TikTok. 

Creativity can turn an unwanted intrusion into a welcome break.

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