“Man is born to inquire and create, and when a man or a child chooses to inquire or create out of his own free choice then he becomes in his own terms an artist rather than a tool of production or a well-trained parrot.”Wilhelm von Humboldt (Chomsky, 1970)
Creativity is a fundamental feature of the creature called human. It’s not a plug-in. It’s not a bug. It’s the defining feature. Take away her freedom, her creative pursuits; you might as well take away her life.
Even as the whirlwind of technological changes transform our lives, the creative spirit of humanity remains alive – adapting and changing perhaps, but never getting extinguished. In fact, new technologies and platforms are enabling people to be creative in new ways- giving people power to be producers and not just consumers. With new found power, people are creating new currencies, building guns in their garage with 3d printing, imagining new governance models and even editing their own genes with CrispR. The brave new world is full of possibilities.
This is truly a watershed moment in the history of human creativity. The world is going through a creative renaissance. But can the same thing be said about Creative Agencies? It seems as if the world is racing ahead even as agencies remain fixated on the rear view mirror, its glory days.
It has never been as convenient as it is now to create asymmetric disruption with creative innovations. By Asymmetric, I mean the disproportionate impact that a small group of people can have. Consider WhatsApp. The company that created WhatsApp consisted of a handful of people. The app they made now facilitates communications between billions of people across the world. Or for that matter, consider the alleged Russian hackers causing havoc with US democracy. Both are cases of relatively small groups of people creating big impacts in the world.
Historically, creative agencies thrived in a world where the asymmetry didn’t exist to this extent. The brands with more money hired better creative shops and spent more money on media to create culture defining commercials. They created a shared consumerist utopia that continues to shape our worldview to this day.
The organisational structure, the technology they used, reflected this reality. The tools of trade were inaccessible to common folks in proximity & capability. The structure was hierarchical, reflecting the importance of a few people’s expertise in the organisation. The organisation practically revolved around a few stars. This suited well for a world where speeds of culture dissemination were comparatively much slower and people had few choices when it came to consumption of content or brands.
The world has completely changed now, but the advertising industry has not. Speeds of cultural dissemination and tool of creations have accelerated, but we still think through the prism of slow-moving culture of film scripts & print layouts. The hierarchy and culture of hero-worshipping doesn’t always allow for younger talent to autonomously react to emerging cultural memes. And lastly, the tools and capabilities in an advertising company now are in no way superior to that of a successful group of Instagram influencers.
How can advertising industry excite its creative people if the industry is a laggard now and not a vanguard? What new roles can agencies assume in this amorphous, ever changing world that is as exciting at its fringes as it is at its centre?
To answer these questions, lets first get a sense of the nature of the beast we are talking about.
1. Shift focus from Titillating tech to Transformative Tech.
Digital technology has upended long established ways of working. People working in the industry are fundamentally confused about the impact of technology on the industry. There’s merit in revisiting the thoughts of the great Marshall McLuhan here. He famously said, “the medium is the message”. His statement suggested that a medium/ a technology, affects the society in which it plays a role, not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristic of the medium itself. We shape tools for our ends and in the process, the tools mould us.
When we talk about Technology, we have been focusing on the ‘content’ of technology – ‘which tools should our creative partners use? Which Social Network are people using?’ The truth is – these questions are trivial at the broader level. Facebook, the social media platform, didn’t upend our business models, by monopolising attention of people. The secret weapon of the platform is its egalitarian promise of enabling people to do what was not possible before. New platforms like Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Google create fundamentally new ‘agencies’ for people – new capabilities that people didn’t have access to before.
Platforms are egalitarian spaces for enhancing one’s agency – in a sense uber provides hyper limbs on demand, google is a vast brain at our disposal and Facebook is the nerve-centre of our social lives. These platforms are enabling people to supersize their capabilities and be creative in new ways. That is the fundamental promise of platforms.
The promise is not just about ‘liking’ a brand or dancing to a Tik Tok track. The promise is that of building on top of the new freedoms, new ‘agencies’ that platforms offer. Consider the brand ‘Glossier’ for instance. It turns its packaging into an interactive canvas for users to personalise their products with stickers, designed for Instagram followers. On the other hand, consider Google search and Amazon Echo’s impact on Brands. L2 Inc.’s research suggested that queries for non-branded products increased in every CPG Category, at the expense of branded products! For everyday use product categories, brands might soon become redundant. One of the freedoms that people expect from platforms is the freedom to not remember brand names!
To survive in this rapidly evolving world, agencies need to learn from these platforms.
The tech that we should focus on is the one that helped them build the platforms: The tech that helped them create new agencies, new capabilities for humanity. To do that we need to first look at how they built their teams – the way they work, collaborate, take in feedback and improve.
We don’t need to ape them. But we surely do need to learn from them and identify the systemic changes that technology can help us introduce.
Creative transformation principle #1
FOCUS ON THE WAY TECH CAN IMPROVE THE ‘SYSTEMS’ OF OUR INDUSTRY: THE WAY WE WORK, COLLABORATE, RESPOND.
HOW CAN WE EXTEND AGENCIES OF PEOPLE TOO?
DON’T FOCUS ON THE PARTICULAR TOOLS OF CREATIVITY. THOSE WILL KEEP CHANGING.
From mass media manufacturer of desire
To Culture Creator among people
Unlike past, when a cultural content would last for years, big campaigns made sense. In an age where even blockbuster billion-dollar films get consumed and relegated to past in a matter of a few months, do planned campaigns with long gestation period and diminishing lifetime, make sense?
Brands might as well play lottery with that money.
Now, content is consumed and created instantaneously, built over, remixed & spread memetically. By the time an agency or a client catches hold of the coat-tails of the trend, the meme has transformed into something else. The MEME is ephemeral and yet leaves its imprint on the culture by letting others build over it. This duality of ephemerality and timelessness of memes is quite beautiful and intriguing. Even digital agencies, with their siloed structures, have not even begun to appreciate how to deal with this new beautiful beast. Agencies are simply not BUILT to host, curate or influence these memetic trends.
CREATIVE TRANSFORMATION PRINCIPLE #2
BUILD FOR INSTANTENUOUS CULTURE OF CREATION & CURATION.
BUILD FOR PARTICIPATING AND CREATING AT THE SPEED OF CULTURE.
3. FROM IVORY TOWER OF EXPERTS TO
FERTILE GROUND FOR DIVERSE INTELLIGENCE
Digital collaborations are increasingly frictionless, due to the zero marginal cost paradigm. This has enabled people from across the world to network and work together in new ways, that was not conceivable even a few years ago.
Take the case of FOLDIT for example. It’s an interesting experiment that gets gamers to solve complex long-standing scientific problems. Anybody can participate in these ‘games’ – some are high-school students, some without a science background. Yet, this collective of video gamers helped monumentally in a decade long effort in mapping the structure of an enzyme used by retroviruses similar to HIV. (This is references from Joi Ito & Jeff Howe’s book, Whiplash)
The experiment harnesses the superior abilities of gamers of recognising patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning that most of us lack. The organisers of experiment filtered through hundreds of thousands of people who are experts at this very specific skillset. This they did, by using the data generated by the game, intelligently.
Big Data’s big advantage is in finding the precise capabilities, trends, insights that would have been simply not possible to find otherwise.
Among the many other implications that this has for advertising, I want to bring to your attention, one fundamental myth that ails this industry. The myth of expertise behind closed doors.
If gamers can help microbiologists in their very specialised tasks, why can’t salesmen & bus conductors help us solve brand problems? Why can’t agencies harness big data to find and match expertise in ways that allow it a greater play in culture? (And Publicis’ Marcel is not the way for it. I have a few ideas, will share it in a book I am writing now.)
The way we leverage expertise is counter-productive. The prevalent practice is to hire creative talent and make them work exclusively on select client projects. But history tells us that best ideas come at intersection of minds, in open fields of free association, when mind delves in diversity-rich societies. The closed doors of agencies only accelerate the decay of creative thought processes.
For effective creative transformation, agencies need to engineer greater diversity in our work-streams.
Creative transformation principle #3
ADOPT TECHNOLOGIES & POLICIES THAT ENHANCE DIVERSITY OF EXPERTISE.
4. FROM AUTHORITY TO EMERGENCE
Diversity leads to dialectic dialogue. The organisational systems and incentives need to be designed in a way that these dialogues build over each other and not end in internecine politics. For that to happen, the management needs to cede control strategically. The power must move away from the centre and towards edges, become fluid and transitional. An organisational chart of an agency should be closer to the participatory democracy of Switzerland rather than the iron fist of Soviet communist party.
Joi Ito & Jeff Howe, in their book Whiplash, make a persuasive argument for this shift. Traditional systems depend on decisions made at the top. Consequently, the processes are slow, encrusted in layers of bureaucracy and encumbered by a conservative proceduralism.
To respond rapidly, the organizational structure must allow for ‘emergence’. Emergence is the ability of a collective to do something that individuals couldn’t do on their own. Ants exhibit it when they navigate challenges to their colony or to source food, without a central decision-making body. They do so, by following a few simple principles encoded in their genes that guide their behaviour around certain stimuli.
There’s a lesson here. Organisations that institute simple principles which empower autonomous behaviours among its workforce can respond to new threats and challenges much more effectively. This is already happening to an extent with online tools that reduce much of the friction that defined business in 20th century – in raising capital (with Kickstarter), in communicating (with Slack/WhatsApp), in manufacturing (with 3d printers, Shenzhen supply chain) and so on. With on-demand manufacturing in Shenzhen, on-demand access to cloud with AWS, on-demand access to capital on Kickstarter/ VC, on-demand access to talent through gig-economy, anyone can respond to an emergent threat/ opportunity now and start an organisation.
It’s a brave new world out there. To navigate changes in these rapid waters, we must take a few brave decision and pivot towards being an emergent organization.
Creative Transformation principle #4
RESILIENT ORGANISATIONS ALLOW FOR EMERGENCE.
CREATE ENVIRONMENTS & SYSTEMS IN WHICH PEOPLE CAN BE FREE TO CREATE, INQUIRE & RESPOND AUTONOMOUSLY.
5. FROM WATER–TIGHT SILOS TO PERMEABLE SYSTEMS
The creative industry clings dearly to siloed structures. When traditional agencies were found wanting in their digital capabilities, they created a separate department for that. Now digital transformation is the talk of the town and voila! There’s a sister concern catering to that demand. It is almost a knee jerk reaction. Need to increase gender diversity – hire a gender diversity officer. The ideas have been lagging in execution? Create a position of chief delivery officer.
For every objective, the modern agencies simply hire a person whose headache it would be to run the agenda. Agencies these days are ballooning with senior level hires who seem to spend more time convincing clients that transformation/ diversity hire/ delivery indeed is improving, rather than systemically doing something to solve those problems.
The costly hired hands can’t do much anyways. In a global firm, how can a person or a department truly influence other departments? The problem is systemic, the solution too must be systemic. It can’t be anybody else’s headache. It has to be the CEO’s headache.
How does an agency CEO deal with this situation effectively? By enabling a more permeable culture – getting more people to work/ interact with people from other departments – agencies can improve diversity of thought and create more opportunities for emergence of creative opportunities and responses to threats. Intellectually, the most fertile grounds for innovations are the intersections of an organisation.
CEOs should work towards ensuring a permeable structure that rewards exchange of expertise, inter-departmental conversations and ability to self-govern.
Creative Transformation principle #5
USE TECH TO INCREASE THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEOPLE FROM VARIOUS DEPARTMENTS TO WORK/ TALK WITH EACH OTHER. INTELLECTUALLY, THE MOST FERTILE GROUND IS AT THE INTERSECTION OF DEPARTMENTS.
At the heart of the issue of Creative transformation of our industry are people who create and inquire freely. The industry will thrive as long as these creative heroes have an enabling, free and autonomous environment. For them to rise to the challenge of changing times, their environment must evolve along the following principles.
- Focus on the way tech can improve the ‘systems’ of our industry: the way we work, collaborate, respond. Don’t focus on the particular tools of creativity. Those will keep changing.
- Build for instantaneous culture of creation & curation. Build for participating and creating at the speed of culture.
- Adopt technologies & policies to enhance diversity of expertise.
- Resilient organisations allow for emergence. Create environments & systems in which people can be free to create, inquire & respond autonomously.
- Use tech to increase the opportunities for people from various departments to work/ talk with each other. Intellectually, the most fertile ground is at the intersection of departments.
It will do well to remember Ivan Illich’s famous words when we plan for creative transformation. People need tools that extend their freedoms, not limit them.
“People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well−programmed energy slaves.”Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality