A friend in a strategic role at a large ad agency once noted that there is a magic in the creative process that could never be duplicated by any type of technology.
Of course, marketing today for most companies means creating high volumes of content at scale quickly, for multiple personas and markets. This requires rethinking how the creative process is managed, redefining how much creativity is needed at each point of the workflow and establishing simple but universal rules.
There’s a natural tension between creativity and scale. Creativity is about coming up with original and unpredictable ways to solve problems. But large companies, in whose service so many of us exercise our creativity, need scalable systems. Whether it’s Toyota’s famously reliable production line or how individual employees file their expense reports, rules ensure as predictable a result as possible.
At first blush, the needs of creativity and scale feel completely at odds: How could you possibly deliver true creativity within the strict, process-orientation of a large organization? And for that matter, how could you possibly expect to produce anything at speed and scale, and have it be particularly creative? Rules are entirely antithetical to creativity, right?
Not necessarily. Creativity and constraints are natural bedfellows. It’s very seductive to think about creativity as a kind of a metaphorical syzygy, where supernatural forces align celestial elements in the vacuum of space. But that isn’t a very modern approach to scaling, and it just doesn’t jibe with what we know about modern marketing management.
While it may seem that the variance of creativity makes it inherently opposed to systemization, the problem really isn’t that rules squash creativity. To the contrary, creativity is about “novelty, with constraints,” and you can’t have true creative problem-solving without establishing parameters to the problem. (Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile writes extensively about this.) Marketing, while largely a creative discipline, can only exist within the constraints set by the business, brand, consumer and culture. The question, then, is how do we set those constraints and help everyone in the organization understand they’re not an enemy, but a friend?
If you zero in on any business process, you’ll discover what a “variance spectrum” that defines just how much novelty is needed. On the left side, there is manufacturing, where the goal is 0% variance. On the right side, at 100% variance, is where pure innovation occurs. And then the other departments fall in-between, based on their own mix of methodology and novelty.
Marketing is relatively high-variance, of course, but even it has its own set of processes that can be plotted according to creative variance, with routine support processes far to the left and creative ideation on the right.
Once you have broken down the creative process into steps by “creativity required,” you can start asking the right questions: Where should there be rules? When should rules be strict? When should they be flexible? How can staff make the right decisions when the rules aren’t clear?
One useful model for doing this is “hard rule, soft rule, no rule.”
“Hard rules” are binary. You used the right logo, or you didn’t. These rules are inviolable, and should be explicitly understood across the organization.
“Soft rules” are more subjective. These are things like brand tone. Here you need universal self-assessment criteria questions that every team member can ask in any situation to determine if choices comply with the spirit of the brand. (Can you imagine this written by anyone else? Are there any buzzwords? “Does this global message violate any norms of our local audience?)
“No rules” preside when neither hard nor soft rules are applicable. In that case, creatives are free to proceed without restriction. Simply knowing that this is a safe space within which to experiment can be fertile ground for novel thinking.
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In small organizations, it’s easy to stay on strategy. But as companies grow, marketing needs more strategy and process to inform decision making. Otherwise, creatives may start playing it safe to meet the needs of scale, or else pursue novelty without regard to the real constraints of the business.
The solution to scaling creativity isn’t just creating more rules. It is defining your creative spectrum and then implementing simpler and more explicitly stated rules. That’s helps ensure that creative energy is used effectively, that content stays connected to the brand, and that the results are judged well in the marketplace.