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Creativity is the last legal unfair competitive advantage

Resist conformity and fight against the gravitational pull towards the norm to create work with a genuine edge

Businesses are overwhelmingly left brain, logic-based organisms. Decision usually only get made if it can be proven beyond much doubt that they will lead to successful outcomes. Or, more cynically, if the decision can be defended, whatever the outcome – which sometimes seems to matter more these days than the success of the outcome.

Accountants dominate the senior echelons of business. Twenty per cent of FTSE 100 companies have accountants as CEOs. And there are generally far more accountants on boards of directors than any other profession. This is not anti-accountant.

On this week's Inside Marketing podcast, Ray Sheerin, the founder of Chemistry, and now an independent director and brand and marketing consultant, talks to us about the importance of creativity in media. Listen now: 

Of the founders of companies, the entrepreneurs – very, very few are accountants. They’re creative thinkers, in the broad sense. Entrepreneurs, like inventors, come up with their ideas creatively, not by taking one logical step after another. First, they intuit the solution – and then they apply logic to test that it works. That is creativity.


Creativity is “the last legal unfair competitive advantage we can take to run over the competition”, according to legendary UK adman and author Dave Trott. In a world of business where analysis is more prized than creativity, there needs to be a better balance.

The value – and the power – of creativity needs greater recognition. A single creative idea can transform the fortunes of a business or a brand – something no amount of professional services will ever achieve.

Creativity dominates in art, in culture – so why is it so poorly valued in business?

While there are surprisingly few decent definitions of creativity; the majority of them acknowledge difference as a key component. Most companies, especially the leading companies in any category, behave in remarkably similar ways. Each category has its own set of “rules” and behaviours which are followed slavishly. Only the start-ups and the upstarts dare to break them. They do so because they have a business imperative to force their way into the market and the best and cheapest way to do that is to be disruptive – by being different.

The problem with trying to prejustify every decision is that people are more comfortable with what is familiar to them and are far more likely to reject the unfamiliar. This is why there is so much wastage in communications, and bland ads being run – work that “nobody had a problem with”, but nobody noticed either. To quantify the problem: every year in the UK, some £21 billion is spent on communications. Of that, just 4 per cent is remembered positively. Seven per cent is remembered negatively. But 89 per cent goes unnoticed and unremembered, worth £18.7 billion worth a year.

Unique point

The idea of a USP, a unique selling proposition, was pioneered by American adman Rosser Reeves; his idea was that the job of marketers was to find every product or service’s unique point and communicate it.

But we now live in an era of near-homogeneity in products and services – even if you have one, it can and will be copied almost immediately by your competitors. So, it’s more and more difficult to actually be different to your competitors. Which is why it’s becoming ever more important to behave differently.

We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings who make informed and considered decisions. Turns out, it’s not the case. Daniel Kahneman is the only psychologist ever to win the Nobel Prize for economics. In his seminal work Thinking, Fast and Slow, he showed that cognition is overwhelmingly based on feeling, on emotion. What he calls system 1 thinking is basically intuition and it’s incredibly fast. For things such as brand preference and purchase decisions, it’s how people operate.

Contrarian thinking is very useful in creativity

System 2 is analytical, based on reason, and is much slower. Despite that, it’s often irrational. This is why emotion-based communications are always far more effective that rational-based ones. It doesn’t mean communications should not contain rational information – it’s just that this information needs to be communicated in an emotional way if it is to stand any chance of getting cut-through and gaining memorability. Without that, it’s headed straight for the 89 per cent unnoticed and unremembered.

So, having (hopefully) made the case for creativity, how do you go about trying to facilitate creativity in an organisation? There is no single answer to this. But there are lots of things that can be done to help. What follows are just a few suggestions.

Many years ago, when I worked for the global agency, Ogilvy, I asked their worldwide CEO what their most successful offices had in common. His reply was that the only common denominator was a really strong partnership between each individual agency’s CEO and creative director. This is the combination of left and right brain thinking in equal partnership.

So, my first suggestion is based on my firm belief that every business should ensure that creativity is well represented at a senior level in their organisation. There will be more than enough logical thinkers already; what is needed is the inclusion of a different perspective.

Being more creative means fighting against the gravitational pull towards the norms, towards mediocrity. Conformity is the sworn enemy of effectiveness, it doesn’t get noticed. But it’s comfortable, which is why there is so much of it. Conformity tries to appeal to everyone and ends up appealing to no one. Given the dominance of left-brain thinking in business, it may be that the war against conformity is unwinnable – but it is vital to keep fighting the battles.

Contrarian thinking is very useful in creativity. Most competitors will be doing things the same way as each other. Most of their staff will have experience of working in the same category for the majority of their careers. Which makes it very hard for them to stand out. So, actively look at ways to do things that the competitors don’t or aren’t. Behave differently, even if you’re not really that different. In the grocery category, shoppers, mainly women, do not want to see ads in supermarkets because it reminds them of the chore of shopping.

In creativity, logic is the enemy of magic. The brilliant UK adman and behavioural economist Rory Sutherland says that if you set logical people the task of solving a persistent problem, they are bound to fail – because if a logical solution existed, it would already have been found. Counterintuitive thinking is incredibly powerful. So, try to consider illogical solutions too – they may turn out to be wrong but, at a minimum, they will help get to the right answer. And, at a maximum, they may just get you a transformative breakthrough.

Your subconscious

To finish, one of the most powerful creative techniques of all: make your subconscious work. Most of the best creative ideas occur to people at times other than when they are working. This is because their subconscious minds are continuing to work when they have stopped trying to think. Try it – when you need a creative solution to a problem, or even if you just can’t decide between a number of options, force yourself to stop thinking about it.

Chances are the solution will present itself when you don’t expect it – when you’re on a walk, in the shower, or any time when you’re no longer thinking about it. Your subconscious mind will already have sorted it for you.

Ray Sheerin is an independent non-executive director and business, brand and marketing consultant

Inside Marketing is a series brought to you by Dentsu and Irish Times Media Solutions, exploring the issues and opportunities facing the world of media and marketing.
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