The digital age was supposed to bring a wave of new creativity in advertising. Instead, it is under attack

NEW YORK – MARCH 01: A worker carries a sandwich board advertising a sale in the SoHo shopping district of Manhattan March 1, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Over this past year I have spoken with marketing students and with their professors. I’ve talked with new marketers and veteran marketers. I’ve had these conversations in Europe, the United States and here in Australia. I asked each of them about the challenges facing marketing as we look twenty years forward, toward 2037.

In those discussions, I heard that creativity, something that has been nearly synonymous with marketing, was under threat.

Creativity is an essential tool in making brands salient, memorable and desirable. I’m sure it is unintended, but there is, I believe, a conspiracy to kill creativity.

It is being attacked on two fronts: talent, and time.

Many companies believed that the “digital revolution” would mean fewer people were required to market their products or services. A CMO of a very large services company once lamented to me that his most difficult job was convincing his Board that digital required more, not fewer people. And yet many companies saw the growth of digital as an opportunity to “right size” their workforce. And that reduction in talent, of people, has had an impact. First, in reducing brain power. And because the number of tasks has not been decreased (arguably, in a digital world they have increased), time has become a victim.

Creativity requires time. Time to think. To Imagine. To dream. And yet, the pace of change, the increase in tasks and reduction in staff, has compressed available time.

I was told that there was no time for proper creative briefing. Agencies were being sent reams of data, without an insight in sight. Creative teams were juggling more projects with shorter deadlines, sometimes without a brief beyond “we need an ad by Monday”.

Creative briefing is being seen as an expendable administrative task. Of course it isn’t. The Creative Brief is a valuable marketing tool. Writing one is perhaps the most strategic and creative activity in which a marketer can engage. And yet, paradoxically, it is an activity threatened with extinction.

Some are rejecting creativity as a relic of the last generation. I had a fascinating conversation with a successful entrepreneur operating a web-based retail business. He told me that his marketing team had more accountants than it did marketers or creative people. He suggested that there was evidence to support this approach; that they always knew their most effective ads, since the data on the response to those ads was so robust. They could change elements in an ad, put it into the rotation, and the most effective ad would move to the top, with the least effective being replaced with a new one.

Cost-cutting momentum is hard to reverse

I protested that he did not know what ad was the most effective. He only knew which ad was the most effective of those tested. Maybe his results were only a fraction of what they could have been, had one accountant been exchanged for one Creative.

Creativity is essential to marketing. It was essential 50 years ago when Bill Bernbach said, “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic”. And as the amount of commercial messages proliferate in this digital age, it will be essential 20 years from now.

So, what can be done? Charles Kettering told us that “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved”. I think that is true. But the well-stated part of this problem is the easy half. I fear that re-injecting creativity into the marketing process will be difficult. The momentum to cut costs (talent and therefor time) is difficult to reverse in the short term.

But I am optimistic that as the size of marketing departments shrink their companies will experience reductions in market share. And that could swing the pendulum back toward creativity.

A good start would be a recommitment from marketing, their agencies and the business leadership to the creative briefing process. And prioritising the time required for that to happen.

Joe Talcott is one of Australia’s most respected marketing industry leaders. He is a former global marketing and creative director for McDonald’s, and was head of marketing and chief creative for News Corp Australia. He was Chairman of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) and was a founding board member of The Newspaper Works. His business is Creatism Academy. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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