The Creativity Gap


6, Mar 2020. 17:30pm

“Creativity is a drug I cannot do without.” — Cecil B. Demille

Do you remember the scene in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons where Joseph Cotten arrives into the turn-of-the-century town riding on his sputtering, noisy contraption, the “automobile”? Naturally, he’s jeered and laughed at by all the skeptical townsfolk who simply cannot imagine what need there could ever be for such a machine. After all, the town is not that large, the land fairly flat, and horse-and-carriage work perfectly well, thank you very much. Nevertheless, Cotten is undaunted and forges ahead with the development of his innovative vision, knowing that the automobile is a product whose time will soon come. And of course, as the movie progresses and the years go by it becomes clear that not only was his idea “not bad” but it was in fact very prescient. Indeed, by the end of the movie Cotten is a rich and powerful man, at the helm of one of the nation’s most important industries. The moral of the story: disciplined creativity and true innovation always win out in the end.

Though this vignette of complacent old-timers scoffing at the invention of the automobile might seem like a bit of a cliché by now, the lesson the movie teaches is nevertheless a good one to keep in mind. And it is especially relevant today, when in the midst of an embattled economy – right after one of the biggest economic boom periods in history, when nonsensical ideas and whims were pursued without responsible, logical scrutiny – companies are increasingly turning toward cost cutting, safe and predictable business practices and “conventional wisdom” which they feel will help them to survive until the next economic upswing. But whether the economic climate is stable or stormy, reducing or even simply neglecting efforts to foster creativity (actionable new ideas and insightful new perspectives) with innovation (inspiration and hard work) within a company can – and I believe always will – actually weaken that company’s eventual position in the marketplace. In both good times and bad, businesses that do not embrace innovation and turn away from creative exploration in favor of “playing it safe” not only lose a chance to move ahead of the pack and take the lead, but worse, they also run the risk of out-and-out failure.

It’s time that business leaders stop being satisfied with mere strategic conclusions and start integrating more creativity into their strategic development process. In his article “Personal Creativity in Business,” Stanford University’s Michael L. Ray describes how the neglect of creativity is actually a systemic component of today’s business-educational structure. “What I saw in business school,” he writes, “was the scientific paradigm taking over everything else.” As a result, there has been a general tendency by business executives and managers to focus solely on financial and operational matters, leaving the development of creative ideas as an afterthought. And that tendency is so widespread in business today that we can see a true creativity gap opening up before us. [WHO?] puts the problem (and its bottom-line consequences) in no uncertain terms: “This creativity deficit may be the single most dangerous gap in American business today. It leaves employees frustrated and disgruntled, and can easily send a fortune 500 company into Chapter 11.”

But what exactly is creativity, and why is it so important to business? It is not, in fact, an easy thing to define, as advertising agency TBWA Wordwide’s President and CEO of the Americas Bob Kuperman attests:

“Creativity, the buzzword in our business for the last 30 years, has not only been used inaccurately but irresponsibly. Creativity has been worshiped blindly. It has been attacked. It has been maligned. It has been exploited by the unscrupulous. It has been deliberately misrepresented by the dishonest promoter. But perhaps most damaging of all, it has been misunderstood by good, honest, principled business people.

The confusion of which Kuperman speaks is a real one. Nearly everyone claims to wants creativity, but only a few can actually inspire, develop, proliferate and use it. As my friend and acclaimed futurist Watts Wacker has said:

Creativity has become the most universally endangered species in the Twenty First Century. Never has the need for creativity been so compelling and never has genuine creativity been in such short supply. From boy bands to barbecue sauces the problem is the same – instead of experiencing the refreshing spray of authentic originals we risk drowning in a sea of iterations or imitations.”

What Wacker means is that creativity is what it takes to inspire innovative ideas and create products and brands that move people. And that is precisely what the scientific paradigm cannot provide to businesses.

Moreover, businesses need those ideas now more than ever. As is often noted, today the most powerful means of communications in the history of the world are available to us. Arguably the greatest business development in the last twenty years has been the rise of the Internet for communications and commerce. But even so, the fact that the Internet is such an astonishing resource for business does not really mean that much in and of itself. Like pen and paper – another great invention – the Internet only provides the medium for communication. What goes through the web (just like what goes on the paper) depends entirely on the creative powers of the producer. Quoting Wacker again: “We have built a broadband culture but not the creative content to supply it. Our ability to communicate the potentially creative far outstrips the actual creative input.” Unable to see the forest for the trees, the company that does not explicitly foster creativity because it feels safe in the solidity of its “scientific” business practices and advanced technological infrastructure loses sight of the big picture. And the paint that puts the colors on that big picture can only be applied by creativity. Without it, a business – any business – will fall into stagnation.

The disease that is being diagnosed here is not unique to our post-Internet culture. In fact, in a speech to the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1980, legendary ad man Bill Bernbach had a very similar account of what it takes to move people:

At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature. What compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his actions, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him? For if you know these things about [a] man you can touch him at the core of this being.

Bernbach’s thought should be central to the ethic of any business that wants to inspire and connect with its employees, customers, shareholders, the media and its other constituents. The best and ultimately most effective ideas businesses can create are those that involve the people with whom they work with. Without these fresh ideas, which are the fruits of creative thinking, a business or brand is just one more tasteless drop of water in that sea of imitations and iterations.

Furthermore, that deadly lack of compelling originality is not something that can be fixed simply by holding an annual off-site meeting with executives, hiring a better advertising agency or indiscriminately pouring more money into R&D efforts. Though these tactics are often tried – and usually with mediocre results – they cannot ultimately be used to mask lack of creativity and innovation within the actual company itself; it simply does not work in the long run. Therefore, creativity must be addressed and continuously fostered at all levels of a business’ practices and culture. To be sure, companies should spend a great deal of effort and resources on operations, but they should never focus so exclusively on this that they do not foster and promote the creativity that sparks innovation, connects forcefully with customers, and truly makes businesses successful in the long term.

Apple Computer is a well-known case in point. For a time, Apple lost many of its loyal customers by refusing to open their operating system and overlooking key opportunities to innovate. In recent years, however, the company and the brand have turned themselves around by returning to and focusing on their strengths: design and technological innovation and a superior value proposition, even at a premium price.

Bruce Tait from Fallon Brand Consulting wrote the following about Apple:

“To understand why creativity is so important to brand strategy, we need to step back and think about the fundamentals of what a brand is supposed to do: It needs to touch consumers with a relevant, compelling thought about a particular product or service. And it needs to differentiate that compelling thought from all other brand choices available. Apple is a great example of such a brand. They have a positioning around the idea of “Think Different” that is extremely relevant to their target group and absolutely unique in their category. Importantly, they demonstrate this positioning in all aspects of their business advertising, design, product capabilities, culture, etc. It is easy to argue that the brand’s appeal has kept Apple alive in a world where the PC has become the standard platform. Last year, Business Week reported that a whopping 80% of Apple’s total value as a company could be attributed to the value of their brand.

Apple is thus an example of how true creativity inside the company is directly linked to creativity in a company’s brand and advertising – the external face a company shows to the world. As I mentioned before, even a great advertising or consulting firm cannot turn an uncreative, imitative product or company into a forceful brand. In my experience, it is the truly creative companies – companies that really respect and value innovation and creativity – that tend to get the freshest, most innovative and just plain best work from the agencies they hire. As a creative consultant and brand specialist, I can’t help but notice the endless examples of lackluster advertising and weak brand strategy that flood the media and all channels of communication today. I watch and pay attention to them because that is my profession, but the average person doesn’t: he or she can merely change the station, flip the page, click to another web site, or just ignore the desperate appeals and pleas of businesses who want their attention.

So how should business leaders foster creativity in their companies? I believe that honoring and encouraging creative thought has to become part and parcel of any business’ entire culture, from the CEO to the receptionist. Although “idea development” is often part of a manager’s job description, more often than not those managers accept a passive approach to fostering their own – and their employees’ – creative output. And in turn the employees take their cue from management, whose complacency trickles down to them and ultimately stifles the formation and advancement of all new ideas throughout the company. Innovation and creativity must be actively enshrined in very the way a business operates if it is to have any chance of long-term success, and that takes time and serious commitment. Though no substitute for a thorough evaluation and revitalization of a company’s creative culture, I can nevertheless suggest six points which can quickly help to get businesses thinking in the right direction:

  • Provide time and rewards for creative efforts among employees
  • Stimulate measured risk taking
  • Encourage – indeed demand – a diversity of thinking on every task or problem
  • Foster cooperation among employees and outside consultants and partners
  • Work not only with outside partners, but with partners who are from other disciplines: e.g. academics, artists, writers, journalists, sociologists, etc.
  • Encourage and reward (rather than squelch) any rigorous questioning of assumptions

Six points which I’m sure Joseph Cotten in The Magnificent Ambersons would have agreed with.

The Magnificent Ambersons is, of course, only a movie. But the Joseph Cotten character is based largely on the real figure of Henry Ford, who as we know, had quite a head for technological innovation and organizational efficiency. Ford knew that if you integrate more creative, forward-looking thinking into a disciplined process, your chances of long-term success will dramatically improve. What you offer – both the product and the brand – is actually more important to the customer than how you produce it. As Ford said: “The man who will use his skill and constructive imagination [read: creativity] to see how much he can give for a dollar, instead of how little he can give for a dollar, is bound to succeed.”

Businesses really need to get back into the ideas game.