Roundtable: The power of creativity

Strategy gathered a panel of seasoned industry veterans to discuss the state of creativity in Canada – from engraining it into office culture to its effect on the bottom line.

Creativity is a powerful tool. It can mean the difference between an ad that sells and one that outperforms, between a product that gets glanced at and one that gets picked up off the shelf.
When a challenger brand spends less than the competitor but gets more share of mind, it’s usually because their approach is more creative.
Many marketers work in a global framework and Canada’s place in that hierarchy can certainly be helped by strong results, but the investment in the Canadian organization is deemed more valuable if those results can be attributed to its exponential innovation and creativity.
Creativity is a renewable resource that can boost the Canadian economy. Is it given its due?
We gathered a panel of seasoned industry veterans who have not only witnessed the evolution of creativity in Canada first-hand, but have also kept a close watch on the rest of the world. They’ve all attended the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, observing what other countries do differently and how Canada stacks up.
We asked the panel to discuss the state of creativity here – from engraining it into office culture to its effect on the bottom line.

Joan McArthur, president, Joan McArthur Training & Consulting

Mark Childs, VP marketing, Campbell Canada
Rico DiGiovanni, partner, Spider Marketing Solutions
Alan Gee, partner and chairman, Blammo
Steve Mykolyn, chief creative officer, Taxi
Lauren Richards, CEO, Media Experts
Paul Wales, executive creative director, JWT

McArthur: What I think we do really well and where I think there is opportunity to do even more, is creating buzz – campaigns that end up on CNN – to do these sort of experiential ideas much bigger than any kind of traditional advertising.

Gee: I’m not too sure I agree. Looking at it historically, looking at Cannes and that has a gold standard – I see tons of that kind of work all over the world. I think where you may have a point is in economically challenged markets – and that could be Hamburg, Auckland, Toronto, a place where mega bucks don’t rule the day – we creatively have to dig very deep and that’s the wonderful thing about an organic medium, it gives you a chance to get as much exposure as a massively paid piece of work, provided that the client is disciplined enough to know not to get too involved in some of the details which will allow it to get that kind of exposure.

Mykolyn: Across the country, there are a lot of good agencies doing things that traditionally would probably be called dog walkers because they were low budget, very creative, no media behind them – but they’re the kind of thing that you see a lot of and people think they’re great because they are creative. And I think now the way that word spreads, it’s probably smarter for Canadian agencies to engage in creating small things that can go big just because of the way they’re being communicated. Suddenly what’s really small and didn’t need bureaucracy or middle management to approve, it becomes bigger because it’s good and people are seeing it.

Childs: When we’re part of a North American or global organization, there’s a balance to be struck between original work that comes from Canada and work that we partner with other regions on. I think we’ve gone through the last couple of years where budgets are suppressed for the most part, but that doesn’t suppress a big idea or a small idea from going big.

McArthur: Now, with everything being so open, it really is about word of mouth. The universe is going to tell you if it’s a good idea, but it’ll also tell everybody else.

Wales: Generally speaking, you compare whatever brand you’re working on with its direct competitor in that category. When you take yourself out [of Canada], at Cannes, you see how completely different brands and categories express themselves and you compare yourself relative to that, then you can re-imagine what your brand could stand for in this market. When you get exposed to all of that, it just opens your mind.

McArthur: I’ve been [in this industry] for 20 years and when I got here it was a really tight, insulated market with people awarding each other for not great work, frankly. In the mid ’90s, Canada suddenly turned around and was now playing on the international stage.

Gee: It was actually a very conscious effort and I remember it, because I was over in Cannes about 15 or 20 years ago. We pushed like crazy to get Canadians to realize that it was “show up or bust,” because if you don’t show up or if you don’t get counted, then we will be a third-rate marketing nation.
We unfortunately are in some ways, we don’t have enough international brands – you can count them on one hand. The marketing strategy is made out of the country, and we’re adapting and changing in a lot of cases.
Agencies are struggling with what clients they can do this great work on, or what piece of a big brand can they hive off of because no one is looking, that we can do this organic or viral thing with.

Mykolyn: But, it’s small ideas that go big. And if you’re lucky enough to have a brand that is on the branch-plant level, and you do something – there’s still a good chance that it’ll be shared across the world.

McArthur: [U.S. agency] Fallon’s business strategy was to create ads that won awards. And the plan was to win for all of these little guys and attract attention, and the next thing you know, they had FedEx. They strategically put their creative product as their business strategy. So, is there a creative strategy in your agencies and your client companies? Is there actually some sort of plan in place, some way that you’ve shifted or changed the way you look at a creative product?

DiGiovanni: The idea has to drive results more than being creative, because that’s when you’ll get noticed. There have been many occasions where a concept was created in Canada, did extremely well from a sales perspective, and then gets picked up by another country and often goes to the rest of the world.
More than anything, with budgets being constricted as they are, if you aren’t going to deliver some kind of business results, then it’s going to be harder and harder.

Childs: For me, they’re not mutually exclusive. Definitely short-term results seem to be king, but I think creative can actually drive that. But, I think it’s important that we do re-balance this drive for short-term results and the art of this industry.
I’ve always been a big supporter of awards shows for the pure arts and creative side. Can it be looked at skeptically? Yes. But again, there’s always the exception, where the most brilliantly created work just blows the roof off of results.

Gee: Alex Bogusky was a fearless self-promoter, instead of waiting for the awards shows to value the work, he valued the work personally. So, they took their campaign and publicly promoted “Look what a great job we’re doing with this campaign” and then all of a sudden they clean up in the awards because everyone is admiring great campaigns. He went out of his way consistently and ferociously to promote every great campaign they did. Whether or not it was great, he would be out there. We’re in the business of marketing, and sometimes we forget to promote ourselves.

Richards: Creativity in the media world has absolutely been a key differentiator to be able to stand out. From my experience, being innovative and creative, getting recognition for your product, it says “we’re not a commodity media shop, we are a thinking media shop, we care about creativity and innovation and the channels and the way that creative is leveraged.” It absolutely has built business and increased profitability and created a much happier environment.
The opportunity we have as Canadian advertising practitioners to really continue to push the envelope, I think that we’ve been doing one of the best jobs in leveraging creative and media thinking together. And we can do even more of that, because we have a community small enough that we can collaborate.

Childs: We can also get it wrong and it not be a complete disaster. We can recover and learn from it, because there’s risk-taking [involved with] being on the leading edge of creativity.

Richards: [Canadians are] some of the most creative people in the world but in terms of actually selling forward and not taking no for an answer, we’re really trying to convince clients and go down on the sword for ideas and thinking. We’re good people, we’re polite, we’re nice, we don’t want to upset [or] lose the clients.

Gee: Agencies are full of gung-ho, motivated, gutsy people. Unfortunately too many clients are portfolio manager clients – “this is a strong market, this is a good market, don’t rock the boat, seven percent sales increase in your business, keep by the rules” – and therefore there’s no currency or value in being brave often.

McArthur: Let’s talk about the creative process – it seems to me that it has evolved over the last 10 years in most agencies.

Mykolyn: Once I looked at the inclusion of a URL as a milestone on a piece of outdoor, and now everything has Facebook and Twitter. For me, that has been the biggest change in that brands are now wholly connected, and at an agency level, the number of people that touch a single piece of work or campaign is massive.
Any agency that is moving forward is struggling with conceptual thinking in all of those areas, because it used to be those teams (writer, art director and creative director) were the conceptual thinkers – they would think up the campaign, the solution, the execution and do it all – now that thinking has to expand way beyond that core group of people into a whole regiment of people contributing.

Gee: Today you could book a career technologist and a PR person together and there’s a team. You can mix and match teams in a much greater variety to get to a solution and the skill set is so different. There is this integration going on which is changing [the way we communicate] in a very positive and refreshing way.

Childs: For us, we move to this principal of one team, one process. So, we don’t go through the three, four, five historical levels of approval. We have one meeting with 15 people in a room, you’re all seeing it together and you’re providing the feedback all at once, so it’s not pockets of filtering. We typically don’t make a decision anymore in that meeting, because it’s a gut reaction – we come back and provide consolidated next steps.

Wales: To come back to the brief, what needs to be very important there is describing the problem – distilling it down so everybody in the room understands it. The other thing is a really well articulated brand idea, so people who are touching it aren’t all coming at it from a very different perspective, because that can be a huge waste of time.

McArthur: Are we including account people in this collaborative evolution?

DiGiovanni: In the promotional marketing business, when I first got into it, it really didn’t have creative groups. Most of the idea creation came from the principals and/or the account team and then you had the account director who brought it to life. If anything we are now going towards a more traditional model because processes are being put in place. The work is being challenged beyond just selling more bottles, you have to re-enhance the brand – build equity – so there’s been more of an investment in a better creative product in total. But in shops like mine, an idea can come from anyone and in fact we encourage it.

Gee: You’ve got to be archeologists and you’ve got to be detectives and everybody has to be told that is what their job is. It’s not just what people say, it’s not just research, it’s also what they do, so you bring in cultural anthropologists and you start to look and analyze – is that shelf talker all you really need? You question everything and say “what are you trying to solve, why are you doing it that way?” rather than “I need this.” Clients often want to make that leap into execution and you’ve got to stop them because you might be able to get there in a much more creative way, and perhaps in a more efficient and effective way. The new account people, strategists, planners all have to be diggers as much as creators.

Richards: I think collaboration is absolutely imperative now because there are so many more options of how we’re communicating – getting involved in content is a good one. You need the creative brains as well as the content creators, and those who understand the different channels of communication, to be able to all come together and say, “That elevates a creative idea into something new and special and different.”

McArthur: It would seem because of the issue of scale that the opportunity for Canada and for doing successful collaboration can be potentially higher, certainly than the big multinationals in the States, where the homogenization is a little more challenging.

Childs: There is a real tension there; we are striving for an immediate relief, pressures are tighter on business short-term delivery, and we drive for a solution in a given media. When you have a smaller budget, you can do one thing well before you move on, but that may not be true today. Think back to the beginning, a small idea can become a bigger one, not necessarily with millions of dollars but rather hundreds of thousands.

Gee: Why does it have to even be media neutral, why isn’t it market neutral? Why does it have to be an ad? Is the form structure of the product, the packaging of the product, a better delivery of that communication than the advertisement? How do you demonstrate that? You’ve got products now coming in a jar instead of a can and immediately it says “fresher” more than something that’s in a packaging device that’s 150 years old.

Mykolyn: Why is the way we do things in our business the last to really catch on to anything? The way we work against analyst reports by quarter to do campaigns. The way we do things against back to school and holidays – now I know those things will never disappear, but the other part seems by its very nature antiquated because the world knows what’s going on every day. They don’t wait for quarters, they don’t wait for Cannes to see the work, the work is published every single day on blogs everywhere, and yet we market by time frames. I am waiting for the day where the ad and marketing world will wake up and say “Hey! Let’s do something new today. So what if the quarter hasn’t started.”

Childs: A small idea can become big, that runs completely rogue in my mind, and it doesn’t run [by] the quarter.

Mykolyn: It doesn’t, a small idea does not need a committee of 50 [or] anybody in any senior role to approve – it needs somebody to say “you know what, that’s not going to cost me anything.” So, it’s a limited idea with zero reach. [For instance] 20 people in a toilet at the Cottage Life show, but it will have a camera and a USB; thousands and maybe millions of people [see it]. It’s about reaching people in new, interesting ways.

Mary Maddever: How are you getting your organizations to take advantage of that, what are you doing?

Mykolyn: The key is to turn it into your accounts and say “you know what, let’s do something small for this big giant account, we have all the other stuff to sell the products, we have the lights on” – but here is a huge opportunity to move them and by the same token move our brand because I believe that no piece of marketing is successful if it only works for the agency or only works for the client. If it only does one or the other, then it doesn’t work, it doesn’t help the agency
retain or attract people and it doesn’t help the client because it’s
very short term.

Gee: I think there’s an infectious nature of doing that work, because if you have a stable of traditional clients who have to produce results there’s nothing you can do. What you can do is the kind of work that’s viral and exciting with small clients and then the big client all of a sudden says, “Can’t you do something like that for us?”

McArthur: This kind of innovation, this kind of thinking way beyond the old magazine ad – how are you imbedding that in your people and your agencies and companies? 

Gee: When the economy tanked, the last thing anybody wanted to do was be innovative, because being innovative means losing money. So, stick to your knitting, focus on what you’re doing…

Mykolyn: But a lot of innovation works when there’s a down economy.

Gee: That’s right, now you’re getting into the cycle three or four years later where they’re saying the things that win are innovation, so there’s a big trend now to ad agencies bringing that concept back because now they believe and they see the results and the benefit of coming out with innovative, new products and delivering spectacular things as a result. We try to make sure that everyone believes that, but it depends on the size of your organization – the larger it is the more difficult.

Childs: For me, it’s not a role or process, it’s a culture. You need to instill creativity and an innovative culture. If you don’t do that then I think it’s too easy to make the choices to do the base business and manage short term. We have a marketing team mission that we share with our industry partners, it clearly talks about breakthrough innovation and creative ideas, and inspiring insights and bolder ideas. Instill that innovation and celebrate creativity, it’s the easiest thing to cut when times are down.

Mykolyn: Innovation is a hard thing to define, culturally you’re right. It’s the job of senior people to look at the work and encourage it for the right reasons. There is no “best before” date on innovation, it could happen now or in two months. That’s why a department of innovation is a ridiculous concept.

Gee: The word that goes along with it is courage, because if you don’t have courage there are so many ideas that people would not go for, and yet another company would say “what a great idea, that’s the next big thing.”

Richards:  I do think it depends on the state of a company. I do agree it’s about the culture of the organization, but if the organization isn’t currently an innovative culture – I think there are ways and means of speeding that up and changing the culture, like creative innovation catalysts. Some people on our side are good at it and some people are more the process people. How do you spread it around, how do you make it happen faster, how do you make that kind of thinking catch fire? I think if you recognize the talent – you can have it be a contagious way of thinking.

DiGiovanni: And if you don’t have leadership that adopt the concept, then its not going to happen, because the leadership helps to create the culture which then trickles down to the rest of the organization.

Richards: You do have to have a culture where people feel they have the ability to take an educated risk and push the envelope.

Gee: Steve Jobs sets the tone of his company and instead of just having the small core team and then saying, “go talk to the engineers and then talk to distribution,” they bring them in to the process, so that they’re a part of the solution together. They bring everyone on the same page and they all know what the mission is.

Wales: The difference for me is what an agency can bring to a client now because there are so many possibilities. A lot of people can sit and say what a brand could do. I think you’re in the driver’s seat when you can say what they should do. And I think a lot clients struggle with it.

Mykolyn: But now I think people are expecting innovation in the idea. And it could be a creative innovation, a media innovation or something more than that. We had the opportunity to work with Media Experts on the Olympic program, and what came out of that wasn’t advertising, it was an innovative internal contest to develop a torch that had been sold to the Olympic committee as “this is how you should be a part of the Olympics.”
The way that good advertising is done is take a headline and an image, put it on a piece of paper and make it understandable, because if you can boil it down to something that concise you can probably blow it out to radio and television and other things. But if you can’t do that then you don’t have a communication.
I have a bold prediction – I think we are going to see a 25-year-old creative director (or younger) in a major role in a major agency doing major brands. The reason I think this is because last year there was this youth conference [Understanding Youth] and there was a planner at Sid Lee for six years, but he was [24].
I went to SXSW this year, and one of the keynotes was delivered by the young guy who runs Scavenger – which is a location-based game – he stood up there on stage and said “today we’re going to solve a few problems, beginning with education and ending with global warming.” I was thinking, he’s 22, there’s no way. Damn, if he did not dive in and work through how those things could be solved. And everybody in this room and all the rooms that were piped in, thousands of people got what I got – a 22-year-old could solve these problems.
Maybe this information age is going to pay off beyond bootleg movies. Maybe it will pay off in terms of what people will bring to the table and I think that is going to affect the way that we market and think of ideas and the way we’ve traditionally tested things.

Childs: I’d be interested in your views on the future role of the planner. I feel that from my perspective looking in, the planning role is still old-fashioned.

Gee: I completely agree. I think planning is in need of a refresh and I think that is coming in the methodologies they use, and understanding and following people as opposed to just listening to people. We’re not using the same tools, so we have to come up with new solutions to say “this is the insight.”  We started this new thing called the Blammo Brain Trust; it’s people all around the world who have nothing to do with advertising, and they’ve got to be smart in what they do (they can be a mathematician, cardiologist, etc.). One guy once said “the problem is that your product tastes like shit.” No one ever said that, and he was right. So, I think we need to reinvent the process.

Richards: To go back to talking about the 22-year-old executive creative director, as much as the older generation has tried to keep up and stay on top of the changing world of communication,  it is completely different from when they were 12 years old in terms of how people were connecting in that first wave. And it makes a difference in terms of how they would think and go to market and the multi-messaging they are receiving. It’s bound to make a difference in coming
to conclusions.

Childs: I think insight is an art that we could definitely spend more time on.

DiGiovanni: It’s so much easier today given the access to so many people online. It should be simpler to do, because you can find them…and lots of them.

McArthur: Is there something that Canada can do to make sure that we’re publicizing the work we do, beyond awards?

Gee: Years ago, Paul [Lavoie] wanted to get on this [idea of] brand Canada. And if you think about the elements that make up Canada – we talk about how we’ve been the peacekeepers and this nice country north of this hodgepodge of a nation that’s below us. What is essential in the brand of Canada and how can you take advantage of that? [We could look at] brands that have a social conscience or brands that try to put some good back into marketing whatever product or service, and doing it in very creative ways. Then I think we have something that we can really be proud of and export that around the world.