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How marketing departments lose their way when they stop focusing on creativity

Marketers are creative types by definition, right?

So why am I even worried that marketing departments are going to stop focusing on creativity?

I am concerned because I see it happening – and happening more often than many people would like to admit.

It’s usually insidious. No one ever orders marketers to stop being creative. Instead, a cascade of smaller decisions – decisions usually related to attempts to improve efficiency and keep budgets in line – end up stifling creativity in the marketing department.

And that can be dangerous for a company.

In this posting, I want to point out those dangers – and offer tips on how to avoid them.

1. Lose sight of creativity, and you lose the ability to stand out

To be creative is to cultivate uniqueness. It’s about imagining something no one else has even envisioned, and making it a reality.

It’s not easy to be truly creative. Hits of creative genius are rare. Apple comes to mind; their products are truly revolutionary. 

But the reality is that it’s a struggle to “think outside the box,” as the old saying goes. What I call the X Factor – the ability to stand out, which is the true added value a marketing department brings to a company – is as elusive as it is difficult to define. Yet it remains, for any company, the key to success. You can have the best product or service in the world. But if your marketing department can’t make potential customers notice you, you won’t go anywhere.

Marketing departments lose their focus when they become obsessed with things outside the realm of creativity – things like increasing their efficiency, or streamlining their processes, or putting all their energy into developing systems instead of ideas.

In fact, I’d argue that the quest for efficiency is probably the biggest enemy of creativity – and by extension, of the ability to stand out.

So my first suggestion is this: Keep your marketing department laser-focused on creativity. Any proposed efficiencies, or any new processes and systems, should be accepted and implemented only if they enhance the creative elements.

2. Lose sight of creativity, and your marketing department loses its purpose

Strangely enough, creativity is not for everyone. In fact, in departments other than marketing, creativity can be a bad thing. Creative accounting? You don’t want that! You want your accounting department to stay on the straight and narrow. The same goes for other departments – IT, human resources, sales, etc. They should stay abreast of innovations in their field, of course, but it’s best if they follow rules and standard practices and avoid colouring outside the lines.

Because creativity is not an asset in every other department, people in those departments sometimes have a hard time understanding why the marketing department should abide by different rules. If HR or accounting can improve their efficiency by repurposing ideas created by someone else, why shouldn’t the marketing department be able to do the same?

The answer is very simple: If you market yourself like everyone else, you won’t stand out.. You can have the most efficient and perfectly structured marketing team in the world. But if they aren’t being creative, it doesn’t matter one bit because there’s no message to get out.

So my second tip is: Marketing is supposed to be creative. Make sure other departments know that it has its own set of standards.

Yes, you will be asked to quantify the return on investment for the money invested in marketing. It’s a reasonable question. And here’s the answer: At the end of the day, it all comes down to the success of the business. If your marketing department is being creative, it’s creating demand, which drives sales, which leads to growth. After all, you can’t grow a business without having a unique value proposition to offer your customers. A creative marketing department creates that unique value proposition.

3. When creativity is not the focus, you lose the ability to attract the right kind of talent

The best marketers get into the business because they are passionate about creativity. The reality is that if your marketing department doesn’t nurture creativity – the search for the elusive X Factor that allows you to differentiate yourself – you won’t attract the right kind of people. Instead, your marketing department will become full of order-takers and data entry people. And that will drag you down.

My tip: Hire for creativity in marketing, and check in regularly with your creative types to make sure they are happy and fully able to express themselves.

A word of warning: Sometimes, a marketing department can sabotage itself. Not everyone in the marketing department is a creative person. Operations people, technical people and analytics people, for example, did not get into the business to express their creativity. They will sometimes clamour for efficient systems – systems that stifle creativity. Be aware of that, and of the possibility that even seemingly reasonable requests from the marketing department might not benefit the department’s creatives. I’ve seen process people with hearts in their eyes when they talk about tools that will supposedly make the lives of the creative team easier. But when you talk to the creative people, you find out that they actually hate those same tools.

4. When creativity is not the focus, you lose the benefits of efficiency

There’s a stubbornly persistent idea out there that you can either be creative or efficient, but that you can’t be both.

That’s baloney.

It is perfectly possible to be both efficient and creative.

Modern marketing is not an ‘arts and crafts’ field anymore. Ideas are expressed electronically, and through a variety of technological supports.

Those supports can be as modern and efficient as possible – as long as their goal is to provide a canvas for the creative part of the work.

In fact, those supports and systems can enhance efficiency. If every member of the marketing department becomes adept at using them, that makes the team as a whole more nimble and better able to express their creative ideas in forms everyone else can grasp. Imagine the boost in efficiency if you can put in a request for a job and everyone in the office is equally capable of doing the work! 

Technological supports are not constraints; think of them as guardrails. Inside the boundaries set by those guardrails, creative freedom should have free rein.

My suggestion: Create guardrails for your creative marketing teams, not constraints. Efficiencies will follow.

One final word

The X Factor – that intangible thing that allows a company to stand out from the pack – doesn’t automatically happen just because you execute something in a certain way, or because you operationalize your processes. Instead, the ability to be unique comes from the creative leveraging of tools and systems and processes. 

Without creative freedom, one company’s output looks like everyone else’s. Look at the companies that are the best in the world (I’m thinking here of Tesla, or Shopify or Peleton) and what do they have in common? The ability to be creative, which allows them to stand out. 

And that, as every marketer knows, is golden!

Brendan Farnand is a career enterprise marketer who’s passionate about making great, modern marketing accessible to everyone. Brendan’s real job is being a husband and father of five, and he is proud of his dad jokes even if his family isn’t. He’s also a major car nut.

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