Social media changes everything, except the need for creativity

Last summer I was asked to write the advertising column for this month’s Communication Arts. I submitted the piece in August; it only appeared this month. In the print world, space is limited and deadlines can significantly precede publication date.  So below is a slightly modified version representing what would appear if I wrote the piece today.


The tools may be the same, but what we create might be different.

A year ago, if you went around espousing the value of social media you probably found few listeners. Twitter had barely two million users. There weren’t enough participants for any but the most forward thinking clients. And while plenty of bloggers championed conversation marketing, the majority of advertisers were not asking you to engineer their social media presence and build them a community.

Man, the world changed quickly.

If your clients resemble mine, they’re now requesting full-blown social media programs. They want you to launch their brand on Twitter, create apps for their fan page, and introduce them to crowdsourcing.

What happened? Three things created the perfect storm.

The recession. Advertising and marketing budgets plummeted, and as a potential alternative, social media started to look quite appealing. Trying to save money might be the wrong reason to embrace social media but it’s a reason nonetheless.

Barack Obama. Our new president actually used social media and crowdsourcing — in the form of Twitter and a YouTube channel – to get elected.  Hard fact to ignore.

A media circus. Everyone from Ellen to Oprah to Ashton to Lance embraced Twitter. Millions of new users joined. Newspapers and magazines devoted millions of column inches to the covering the new medium. And CMOs and CEOs started to pay attention.

So what does this mean for creative folks? Will there be less traditional advertising?  Is TV going to matter less? Will budgets get chopped even more?

The answer to all of those is an obvious and resounding “yes.” But who cares? Our clients will still need creativity, perhaps more than ever.

Think about it.  Right now being on Twitter or Facebook is still relatively new for advertisers. Marketing through a conversation remains novel. So simply engaging and listening is enough to grab a customer’s attention.

But that won’t last. In another year, every company will post on Twitter, collect fans on Facebook, broadcast on its YouTube channel, and share content on a blog. The cacophony of conversation will grow deafening and the proliferation of communities will be overwhelming.

Once that happens we’ll need new creative ideas — fresh, original, attention getting platforms, experiences and techniques — to grab attention, get remembered and generate results.

There is one catch.  Creativity — the idea, the team that creates it, how it’s brought to life — will all be different.   It ain’t gonna be a print ad or a 30-second TV spot. We may still need the big idea (The Axe Effect, Drivers Wanted, Got Milk) but more likely it will be achieved with a long lasting digital platform or an innovative way to inspire community. Even executions will be different:  viral avatars will convert a target audience into a distribution channel; iPhone applications will become the gateway for capturing data and starting relationships; tools rather than messages will become the new creative currency.

As I look at all the new stuff — digital video, social media, iPhone apps, augmented reality, and the amazing power of crowdsourcing  — I feel like a kid in a candy store.  Never have so many creative opportunities presented themselves.  Yet many people in the so-called advertising business continue to cling to the familiar forms of print and TV.  Dinosaurs didn’t know that extinction was coming; but we’ve been forewarned.

If you’re determined not to be among them, here’s what you might consider doing.

Learn to create in the new media

We’ve seen the power of Facebook apps.  And they’re going to get even more robust.  But you can be creative on Twitter, too. Look at the MadMen avatars, or the fake Don Draper character. But there’s more to come. Someone’s going to use Twitter to redefine how a story gets told, how the characters interact, how a consumer gets to participate. Why not you?

Make friends with a developer

The relationship between technology and creativity deserves more than a sentence or two. But what can be done with a smartphone, Twitter’s API, or a platform like Posterous should excite you. Why not become more familiar with the technological possibilities? You might find they inspire ideas that would otherwise never pop into your head.

Embrace crowdsourcing

I’m not talking about design competitions. Think co-creation instead. You can stick a lyric or a guitar lick on a website and end up with a crowdsourced music track.  You can inspire customers or fans to co-create a piece of art or a multi-screen video. You can create a viral meme that spreads further if the crowd plays a role in creating it.

Expand your tribe

In The Element, Sir Ken Robinson suggests that we become more encouraged and stimulated when we find our tribe.  If that’s true, then shouldn’t we constantly look for ways to expand the one we have? With all the new technology and social media platforms available, we can find inspiration from other creatives anywhere in the world. Beats staring at YouTube videos all day in search of ideas to rip-off.

Build your personal brand

Finally, take your career and your reputation into your own hands. Put your opinions and perspective out there. Share what you know. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how much you’ll gain personally and professionally. Just look at what it did for Erik Proulx in the realization of his film Lemonade.

Much about marketing and advertising has changed.  What hasn’t is the need for creative people. We just have to re-invent advertising’s forms and in the process ourselves.

As always, please join in. Share, leave a comment, and if you’re interested, subscribe to my RSS. Button’s in the upper right.

Photo by: laffy4k


Thanks for the insightful post.

I'll tell ya,

If the majority of our audience knew how many creatives were out of touch with everything you wrote, they would have a laugh.

Great resource even for the enlightened ones. The points you made in the last half of the post are inspirational.

Your tribe is what you make it, succeed with it, fail without it.

Sam Reid
Sam Reid

Good stuff!

Completely agree that creativity is now needed more than ever. But what kind of creativity and from whom? It might be an advantage to come from professions that are far removed from advertising. This might provide more effective thinking?

I think the biggest issue large agencies face is agility and staff range. The larger the agency the slower it can react to change, and this genie is going to keep changing for a long time yet. Plus it might become financially impractical to have the staff range necessary for excellence the new landscape.

Most organisations seem to be thinking of how to shoehorn the old processes and infrastructure in to the new ecosystem. Kinda like half a solution. If the model is still outmoded and disadvantaged, it'll suffer and retreat. Real evolution might be what is required, with fundamental change to create lots of new species with a plethora of advantageous traits.

Dave Watson
Dave Watson

I think Tim Leberecht has been covering a lot of this with his thoughts on moving from message strategy to meaning strategy

I've always seen this all revolves around marketer's ability to create content or provide the building blocks/framework for content co-creation. Ironically, this is not how marketers or marketing creatives are classically trained. So, we have to relearn everything.

Mark Harmel
Mark Harmel

This reminds me of Tom Friedman's take on climate change/global warming. He calls it global weirding when where some regions will get hot and dry and other will flood by monsoons and Hurricanes.

We are entering into a landscape of media weirding. We know that there will be change, but don't know where it is heading.
.-= Mark Harmel´s last blog twitter led me to Lemonade =-.

Ross Kimbarovsky
Ross Kimbarovsky


I agree with what you've written, but I keep thinking about the incredible amount of information fed to consumers every day and wondering whether creativity will be enough. Maybe it's because I just watched Speed Racer with my 8 year old - I keep picturing images of the future with ads everywhere - personalization, localization, etc.

The need for creativity will no doubt become more and more important, but will it be enough? I think about television commercials - remember We celebrate creative commercials, but are they selling more products? Are they building stronger brands? And if the answer is yes - why is everyone predicting an upcoming massive shift of ad dollars to interactive?

I'm not suggesting that there is no need for creativity. There is. I simply wonder if creativity is enough. Most people seem to be putting the emphasis on "media" - interactive, new ways of doing things, viral, etc. But what seems to be working - and working pretty well for those who've done it well: "social". Social doesn't require nearly as much creativity as media. It requires a totally different approach altogether - including the ability to lessen the tight grip over your brand (whether company or personal).

I don't have any answers - I just keep thinking about this same issue you've raised and wondering if creativity is enough...
.-= Ross Kimbarovsky´s last blog ..Small Business Spotlight of the Week =-.

steve benoit
steve benoit

It is amazing how quickly things changed and also how hard some folks have pushed against it.

Really what your talking about here is what a lot of folks are hailing as "the death of advertising".

What I think they really mean is the death of the traditional advertising agency model.

From what I've experienced as a person who bridges the old school and the new school, there will be a tipping point sometime in the next few years where one of a few things will happen.

Either enough large shops will close their doors that it will (hopefully) be obvious to the agencies hanging onto the traditional model that having only a writer and designer upfront on the "creative" of a project or campaign won't get them the results they need anymore and they'll unwillingly adapt OR we'll see the extinction of the "good old boys" attitude of advertising all together, leaving only those that know that TV & print are no long the dog wagging the tail of interactive but instead parts to a more well rounded, quantifiable, personal experience for consumers.

Would love to hear your thoughts on what the creative team of the future looks like, Edward.

To me, if every person in your agency isn't considered creative you've got an up hill battle on your hands. But at the very least adding people who know the arts of strategy, development and integration to your creative round table and not just the arts of design and the written word, is where companies will need to focus their energies moving forward.
.-= steve benoit´s last blog ..:: The Art of Unperfect :: =-.

edward boches
edward boches

I use the term loosely. To me, creativity is learning to write for Google's algorithm the same way you write for a reader's attention. It's developing apps and tools as much as ads and messages. It's conceiving experiences that involve community participation. It's time we stop thinking the word refers to art and copy. So many of the things you are thinking about, are in my opinion, the new forms of creative expression.

steve benoit
steve benoit

Thanks for the props Keith.

Edward, agreed on your all your stated necessities. Just wondering if companies that try to do all of those in house will end up falling behind.

Perhaps it's better to be in a place where you have people who know all of those areas at the table and then make strategic partnerships to complete the project. Back to my point about all the people at your company needing to be creative.

And thanks for the tip on Big Spaceship. I've been a fan of their stuff for a while. Perhaps I can convince them of a remote work situation as I've used up all my relocation tickets with the family. :)

Thanks for the conversation.
.-= steve benoit´s last blog ..:: The Art of Unperfect :: =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Sounds like you should connect with a guy named Michael Liebowitz who runs Big Spaceship. He says some similar things. Agree, agencies that don't change will be gone (witness Cliff Freemen), those that follow the path of R/GA, Goodby, Crispin and even Ogilvy with it's 360 and Ogvily One approach stand a chance. There are some fundamental things happening: one, brands, with SEO, inbound marketing and social media can actually do more themselves (Zappos, Whole Foods, et. al.) and the will. Two, there will be more tools and techniques to help them do it for less. And great content will be essential. That remains the domain of great agencies right now. But new models, production companies like Campfire NYC, and now crowdsourcing inspired companies like Victors and Spoils will get in the game. It's the wild west all over again. But in the end, despite the technology or the medium, three things will always be necessary: great strategy, compelling and relevant content, platforms that invite ongoing consumer participation.

Keith Miks
Keith Miks

Steve, great build and wanted to add to this comment for Edward and not side track. To me, It's not a death but a transition in traditional advertising and thinking. We need to adapt to a new 'Multi-verse' of thinking and communication that includes numerous modes of personal persona online as well as team dialog without boundaries or limitations that we may find on the organizational level. Social media is about being 'social' from the entire spectrum of personal talk. This includes bad rubs to praises, it's all included and now documented digitally. Public Relations meet Social Media and how we promote or dismiss the most minor things from following on twitter to commenting on a public blog. Much respect to anyone who plays in this arena as I am learning to support positive pixels as best as possible. Here's another good TED TALK:
.-= Keith Miks´s last blog ..Tribes will change the world, not advertising! =-.

Keith Miks
Keith Miks

Awesome! Big fan of TED, will put Sir Ken Robinson on the list this week.
.-= Keith Miks´s last blog ..Tribes will change the world, not advertising! =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Thanks, will check it out. And if you haven't, read some Sir Ken Robinson, or watch him on Ted. Brilliant.