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Is Creativity Dead?

by Alf Nucifora

The subject of creativity, and how to get it, always fascinates, particularly at a time when mediocrity, copy-catting and commoditization are increasingly the norms. To strip-mine the issue, I spoke with well-known innovator, Doug Hall, famous for his Eureka! Ranch where some of marketing's more creative product concepts have been incubated. Never the shrinking violet, Hall casts an alert eye over the current state of creative ideation and voices opinions based on years of acute observation of marketing's back yard.

NUCIFORA: You've been in the business now for 20 years. What have you learned during that time?

HALL: One of the things we've noticed is that companies have become significantly more logical and rational, or as it's called, left-brain focused. We've also noticed that fear levels are at a new high. Twenty years ago, people were willing to get in a room, think wild and wacky thoughts, and do big ideas. Today, everybody's intensely concerned about the bottom line results before they even generate their first idea. Wall Street has put such an intense fear into management, and lay offs have been so epidemic across the culture, especially for marketing functionaries, that people are absolutely petrified right now. As a result, we had to literally invent a way to do what we are calling "left brain brainstorming". While historically, the product development groups were the left brain people and the marketing people were the right brain, now they're all left brain! They're all very logical.

NUCIFORA: Is this manifesting itself in less risk…in product innovation, advertising, communications?

HALL: We are seeing it everywhere. In communications, for example, independent thought appears to be dead. It chases the latest fad.

NUCIFORA: The counter proposition is that marketing has escaped ROI scrutiny for too long. It's time now for marketing to be held accountable.

HALL: Right. And, sadly if they really do measure it, they're all going to be fired.

NUCIFORA: Because they are not delivering?

HALL: All you've got to do is to pull the literature. I can bring you 50 sources to look at, and you'll see that advertising and marketing is still a "trust me, it works" thing.

NUCIFORA: What's the cause?

HALL: It's driven by fear and by a lack of education on the part of many marketing people. I am glad that I started so many years ago at Procter & Gamble when you were actually taught something about marketing. We used to have to go through intensive training to learn the fundamentals. Sadly, given the pressures of today's world, real training, real education and serving an apprenticeship have all disappeared.

NUCIFORA: If we restrict the discussion to just creative thinking and creative behavior, what is the greatest obstacle you are seeing today?

HALL: First of all… an openness to learn. As an example, we run projects in the U.S., Europe and Mexico. In the U.S. we get lower results in product innovation and concept ideation than we do in the UK or Mexico. We get the best results in Mexico; then Scotland; next comes Canada; then last is the U.S.

NUCIFORA: Why is that?

HALL: Because unlike us, other countries are willing to learn. Our egos shut us down in the U.S. Everyone knows the answer. Let me give you an example. We have a program called Ideas to Paper. It's a writing program to teach executives how to put their ideas down on paper. I do it in Scotland. They follow the process and they write outstanding concepts, clear and persuasive. I do it in the U.S., with one of the top marketing companies, and they all skip the process because they think they know how to do it. And they write bad stuff.

We also need to learn the basics. We don't know what we don't know. I ask people, "How many of you have read the Journal of Consumer Marketing, the Journal of Marketing Research?" and nobody puts their hands up! Maybe one or two market research people. Either you are a professional or an amateur. If you're not reading this stuff, you are an amateur.

NUCIFORA: Let's talk creativity. Is everybody inherently creative?

HALL: Artistic creativity? No! There are some people who have the gift, but not everyone. Capitalist creativity, creating ideas that make more money? Absolutely! No doubt about it.

NUCIFORA: What separates those who excel from those who don't?

HALL: Those who excel, at a reproducible level, are students of the craft and actually understand strategies that have higher probability of success. They are professionals who study the literature and are practiced in the craft, just like an MD. Here's a quick test to find out if you are professional. To significantly grow sales, the smartest strategy is: A) Find new customers or, B.) build customer loyalty. The obvious answer is "A"…new customers. It's 2.8 times more important than building loyalty. There are about 20 different studies that verify this. A professional understands this. It's about taking the brand to new target audiences, occasions or opportunities. An amateur will turn around and say, "No, it's better to go for loyalty." …or what's called "Play not to loose"…it's better not to screw up than attempt risk.

NUCIFORA: I'm trying to find out what the magic DNA is for a successful marketer. What's the recipe?

HALL: The first ingredient is a never-ending curiosity to learn. And not just a qualitative learning, but the quantitative aspect as well…true left and right brain curiosity…a person who loves numbers and who also loves the emotion that resides in marketing and is willing to work both simultaneously.

NUCIFORA: In your ideation sessions at the Eureka! Ranch, what surprises you when you have clients in the room, going through the development cycle?

HALL: I'm pleasantly surprised at how incredibly good the product development people are. Regularly, we find that the product development people, the engineers, are significantly smarter at innovation than the marketing people. Now, to be fair, they have an advantage because they actually know how the product is made and I believe that innovation starts with the product or the service. In the case of many marketing people, if you pose the question, "Here's your product, here's your competitor's product, why are they different?" they can't answer the question. In the old days at P&G, a professional marketer wouldn't say, "I don't know that," they would know the product inside and out. Today, a lot of marketing people tend to think that products are really the same. But it's very rare that products are exactly the same. There are always differences out of which you can create marketing stories…and we need to believe in that.

NUCIFORA: And you really don't believe that there is product commoditization out there?

HALL: I think we are going in that direction, but I think there are still opportunities to innovate.

NUCIFORA: Go back to the individual. I've got a passion for the business. I've got a natural sense of inquiry. I get excited about marketing and the consumer. From a personal perspective, how can I hone these instincts?

HALL: First, go get Ogilvy on Advertising. Also read, Clayton Christensen's books, The Innovator's Dilemma, and The Innovator's Solution. I would read Tom Peters' Re-imagine!, and then I would also read my two marketing books, Jump Start Your Business Brand and Jump Start Your Marketing Brand.

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