My work is fundamentally creative. There are loads of analytical pieces, but at the end of the day, marketing is about making a connection with human beings who are not as predictable as marketers would like to think. Yes, there are lots of studies on consumer behavior and human drive and we can move the needle by tapping into those things that motivate buying behavior, but so is everyone else and the companies that 'win' the loyalty and sales are the ones that are more creative.
Content marketing, which is the focus of my current consulting, is all about being creative. There is a good amount of noise out there: companies writing blog posts, producing video series and posting regularly to social media channels, and most of it really doesn't matter. It follows formulas and delivers the same old same old that we've read a million times before. There is nothing to distinguish one inspirational quote from another. There is no point of view.
So I am to dig deeper. Provide something different. Something valuable. Something thought provoking. I shoot for remarkable.
But thought provoking, valuable and remarkable take time. They take long hours of thought. And, frankly, most brands don't want to pay for that. We just got them to the point that (many of) them are realizing that content is important and some of them are willing to pay something for it, but that's only a small piece of it. Stopping there would be like giving someone a bathing suit and expecting them to swim across the Atlantic.
Francis Moran, a colleague of mine, recently likened the current state of content marketing to the early state of radio. Anyone with access to the tools could claim expertise in radio, but as it evolved, it was apparent that there were very few examples of radio shows that could hold an audience. And you need an audience to pay the electric bills.
One of the shows that stands out to me is This American Life with Ira Glass on Public Radio. There are very few radio shows that I can listen to for a full hour each week and even fewer that I will go back to listen to multiple times, but this is one of them. There is just something so incredibly entertaining and thought provoking about it.
And then this weekend, another colleague of mine, Mitch Joel, pointed out aGoogle Talk with Ira Glass in which the interviewer asks where he comes up with the programming week after week (for >18 years!) and Glass' answer is amazing:
Somebody will pitch a story that we all feel very excited about and that doesn’t go with any of the themes we have going on at the time, so we’ll just say “Let’s use that story as an anchor for some show” and then we’ll concoct a theme that could plausibly contain it. And sometimes we’ll come up with 2 or 3 different themes that could plausibly contain it and we’ll have other stories left over from other shows that we couldn’t use and see if we can glue anything to it and then we’ll start on a search. And that search could take up to 3 or 4 months often and sometimes even more. Finding ideas for stories is very inefficient.
One of the things when you start to do creative work that nobody ever asks is, “Where are ideas going to come from?” And you have this idea that they are just going to be sprinkled on your head like fairy dust…but you just have to surround yourself with a lot of stuff and a lot of ideas, because ideas lead to other ideas. So at one point, we’ll just go on a massive search…
Then he goes on to describe a very complex process with all sorts of questions and nuances that are unique to every story and every episode, including having to kill about 1/3-1/2 of every thing they start. And he adds:
You really can’t tell what’s going to work until you start to make that thing. It’s like you want lightening to strike as an industrial product (in the same spot) every week, and to do that, you just need to wander around in the rain...a lot.
This is the key to creativity. It's not a linear process and it's not predictable. You need to give it space and lots of encouragement. If you are held to pumping it out like a factory, you are probably not going to nail it. And it doesn't come to you at the most opportune times.
In one of my favorite TED Talks ever, Elizabeth Gilbert describes a fantastic story where poet Ruth Stone would hear a poem thundering over the hills while she was working and have to "run like hell" to find paper and pen to capture it in the moment.
- Surrounding yourself with inspiration, stories and ideas. I'd say that most of those ideas should be on-topic (if you are trying to come up with a great story on wearable tech, surround yourself with conversations, articles and experiences on wearable tech), but you should also step outside of the narrow topic to get inspiration (think about it from the perspective of parenting or fashion or education, for instance).
- Space to breathe and grow. You'll go down a million paths that will lead you nowhere. There is no fairy dust.
- A purpose. You need a direction. A point of view. A raison d'etre. For Ira Glass, it's the constant search for stories that will change people's perspective. Having an end goal or a point of view will help focus you enough on what you want to convey. Then you just have to deal with the how.
As you are probably already thinking, this process is far too free-flowing and unpredictable for most companies out there. It's why most artists are starving and why the world is full of mundanity.
The good news is that there is a happy medium to be struck between completely unleashed creative, interesting content - that is "inefficient" as Glass puts it - and completely lifeless outputs of formulaic, mundane content. But the current pendulum favors the efficient (while complaining that the ROI is less than desirable on this particular output). What we need to work on is the message that it isn't just any content that works. It's content that actually adds value (a term that is understandable to organizations). And adding value takes more thought than a 2 week RFP or a couple of brainstorms.
(The last creative agency I worked with operated on last minute series of brainstorms to come up with ideas for clients. I added some sanity to this by bringing market research to the meetings and presenting insights, but the output was still horrifying enough for me to back away from the whole circus. In an ideal world, agencies would work as partners with clients and evolve ideas over time rather than be given a creative brief, then expected to go into their creative cave and come out with brilliant ideas.)
And brilliantly out of the blue, Jeff Bezos' wildly popular appearance on 60 Minutes provides a fantastic example of a company that is winning and will continue winning by having a purpose, taking time and surrounding itself with inspiration (they spend a good deal on R&D, a dying department). Bezos asserts of their crazy sci-fi drone idea that it'll be 4-5 years before it is reality. But their incredible commitment to customer-centricity helps them get creative in their approach. It's how they became the market leader and how they will stay there.