The Interdependence of Strategy and Creativity

Brett Rolfe.jpgBy Brett Rolfe, Chief Strategy Officer, Naked, Sydney

The dominant advertising agency model has been carefully crafted over the years to deliver what might best be described as 'efficient mediocrity'.

Agencies have sought to increase productivity and predictability by applying Fordist principles like division of labour and time-motion studies. As a consequence, they have separated two of the most central aspects producing work - strategy and creativity.

Strategic thinking is characterised by ideas that 'contribute toward an objective', while creative thinking is all about ideas that are 'new, unusual and original'. In reducing them to such simple definitions it is obvious that to effectively solve business problems in a context of shrinking budgets, increasing competition and more dynamic technology landscapes, solutions need to be both strategic and creative.
While the 'left brain vs. right brain' is an oversimplified metaphor, recent findings in neuropsychology have shown that strategic thinking and creative thinking are indeed different cognitive processes. Which means that some people will be better at one than the other, and some processes will facilitate a particular type of thinking. This means that they can be pulled apart, refined, and 'fine tuned' - resulting in efficient production of ideas. The problem comes when we realise that in doing so, we have greatly diminished our ability to create great work - hence the mediocrity. To agree with Leo Roberts, IMC Group Marketing Manager of Coca-Cola South Pacific, "Strategy and creativity can't be divorced. They're iterative, despite the fact they look linear."

Building an agency around the integration of strategy and creativity (or 'strategic creativity', as we call it at Naked) means embracing change right across the business. Strategy is no longer about "a singular insight or proposition", as Hamilton Jones, Managing Director of Deepend, puts it. It's about "finding the right problem to solve."

Finding those problems and exploring those directions is an inherently interdisciplinary, non-linear, collaborative process. We have to accept that non-linearity is key to success.

This approach also rejects the tendency to create homogenous, independent silos within an agency. The different perspectives that strategic and creative members of the team can bring inherently makes for better thinking. Imogen Hewitt, joint Executive Strategy Director at Havas Group puts it simply; "the more diversity you bring into the room, the better the outcome."

Making strategic creativity happen isn't a trivial task. It must be implemented and successfully integrated across all aspects of the business. At Naked, we believe it should be reflected among people, processes, and culture.

In terms of people, we believe in the importance of hiring 'hybrids' (or 'brilliant misfits' as we often call them; amazing generalists and T-shaped thinkers who struggle to fit in within constraining work environments). Fortunately, hybrids are not as rare as they once were. More people - more creatives - are open to working with insights derived from data. And vice versa for strategists; "more are open to being driven by instincts they can then work to prove", observes Hewitt.

When it comes to process, we need to consciously build it into our ways of working. That's why, at Naked, we're such advocates for workshopping. Not the ubiquitous and agonizingly badly run brainstorm, but carefully planned opportunities to bring together agencies, clients, and external stakeholders to focus on a problem. To share, to collaborate, and to set the groundwork for the next stage.

Finally, we continually strive to foster a culture that supports this type of working. And to do that, we need to embrace a little chaos. For some agencies, and some clients, the idea of willingly introducing chaos is an anathema to everything they hold sacred. Others are enticed by the dangerous-sounding appeal of the idea. The goal is not to be titillating - the science behind it is sound.

The world is made up of systems that vary on a spectrum from highly ordered to highly chaotic. At the ordered end of the spectrum there is rigid stability, but systems become predictable and stagnant. Conversely, chaotic systems may produce novel output but are inherently unstable and struggle to maintain any consistency of focus. Somewhere in between there is a delicate place that produces 'metastability' - systems that have a degree of consistency and predictability while allowing the flexibility to adapt and invent. This is where complex, 'high-level structures' can emerge, the kind of ideas, products and experiences that make innovative companies successful. It's in these complex, metastable environments, carefully balanced 'at the edge of chaos' that strategic creativity lives.

Any examination of a truly creative environment will show that strategic thinking and creative thinking are two sides of the same coin. Separating them leads at best to efficient mediocrity. Bringing them together has its own challenges - you need the right people, supported by the right processes, embedded in the right culture.

So ask yourself these important questions:
•    Who is our next creative or strategic hire? How can we make them more hybrid?
•    How can we change our process to get the right people in the room at the right time, more often?
•    What one thing could we do to our space to create a culture that encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration?
•    What's holding us back?

For many organisations it's not an easy journey, but in increasingly competitive, commoditised contexts, strategic creativity can make a real difference.

9 Comments

Adam Ferrier. said:

What a great article. Insightful articulate and in my view - right.

Seriously? said:

Try fitting that into 30 seconds.

Alle-frikkin-luia!

Absolutely spot on... Brett - thank you SO MUCH for speaking out on this. :)

Forgive me for ranting here, but this is a subject that's *very* close to my heart

This is a message I've been promoting, speaking about, blogging about, and preaching to clients, creatives and suits for at least the last twelve years - but there are still die-hards out there who don't listen, treat strategy and creative as two as separate processes, then bung them both in separate developmental and cognitive silos within their agency as a result,

I put my money whee my mouth was on this subject. I based my agency, my brand positioning, and my long-neglected masters studies around developing this very notion. I developed my own IP that merged strategic and creative development processes into one. I compiled lists of creative thinking principles that would be useful for brand strategists, and strategic development templates that actually meant something meaningful to creatives.

I was sending articles to CB back in 2003, saying that as creatives, we need to bring more to the business table then just our creative acumen - we need to make our creative adhere to strategically sound branding and business development principles. At the same time, I also shouted from the rafters to clients in my presentations, that their strategic communications development is fundamentally flawed if it doesn't get them to a place that fosters and enables higher levels of creative expression.... the clients that listened to me usually profited from it, and the one's that didn't ... didn't !

Shortly after I launched my little creative shop on these principles, Mike Edmonds and Ronnie Duncan were doing their own version of much the same thing. They teamed a brand planner with a creative director, called themselves a branding team called their agency Meerkats, and have regularly achieved both strategic and creative excellence ever since.

The same strategic / creative principles you're describing are also closely echoed in other cognitive development / business development processes like Agile...

... But still - some clients just wouldn't listen. too dogmatic and entrenched to consider doing something new.

Keep spreading the good word Brett - the more people who get up and shout about merging / aligning strategic and creative development processes in their communications, the faster that everyone will benefit.

Keane said:

Nice read Brett, you should have used the magician headshot though.

Einstein said:

I beg to differ.

I'll try to make it simple.

The job of Strategy is to define the problem to be solved. That's because Strategy works closely with the client and the consumer to understand the issues, the problems and the opportunities and distil them into a brief.

Creative are too busy working through their intray of briefs developed by Strategy to do that. Nor should they. Strategy and Creative are separate, specialist disciplines. (I won't do your bit if you promise not to do mine.)

Good Creatives should be able to trust that Strategy have done their bit well, are skilled and professional and have correctly analysed the problem and stated it clearly on a brief.

The job of creative is to make the communication of Strategy's brief understandable and interesting - using imagination to bring the strategy to life in a compelling way - while seamlessly weaving unmistakeable branding into it.

It's really no more complicated than that.

Or shouldn't be.

Einstein's Dreams said:

Beg to differ Einstein, in a world where the consumer changes at speed the need to work collectively to deliver engaging comms is paramount in being selected as an agency for your client.

If the two departments work separately, or have to trust each 'have done their bit', you will find yourself taking forever to get to market and will have missed the opportunity.

Like it or not we are at the speed of digital and collectively working is the key to agencies still being on client rosters.

Hi Brett - et al.
While I like what you are saying - why is this being treated as revolutionary and new? The best planners have always had a creative bent. The best creatives have always got strategy. And the best work has always been produced when the two halves have collaborated to create a better whole.
If the industry's creativity is not strategic, nor its strategy creative, exactly what purpose do they serve?

Jaime Klein-Daley said:

Yep.

The tricky part for a manager is understanding what a hybrid is actually 'best at' and managing to his/her strengths, while knowing that not everyone CAN or SHOULD do everything. I'm working on something right now where my UX-leaning strategists should understand brand, my brand-leaning strategists should be well versed in experience, and the same thing is happening on the side of design and conceptual creative. Now where it gets tricky is making sure the right people are on the right businesses, addressing and solving the right problems. But your approach is a good start.

Jaime Klein-Daley said:

Yep.

The tricky part for a manager is understanding what a hybrid is actually 'best at' and managing to his/her strengths, while knowing that not everyone CAN or SHOULD do everything. I'm working on something right now where my UX-leaning strategists should understand brand, my brand-leaning strategists should be well versed in experience, and the same thing is happening on the side of design and conceptual creative. Now where it gets tricky is making sure the right people are on the right businesses, addressing and solving the right problems. But your approach is a good start.

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