Do we need a new definition of creativity?

There are a few things that ad people like more than to call out for someone’s portfolio when in disagreement with that person. In a more modern version of the “show me your portfolio” theme, this means asking the question: “yes, but why listen to him? what has he actually done? I mean, what has he ever made?”

Beyond its occasional cameo in the spats that are advertising world’s joie de vivre, this question is meant to mark a long-living perceived divide between people who make stuff — a.k.a. the creatives — and people who merely observe and talk about stuff — a.k.a. the strategists. Because, the reasoning goes, creativity is about “producing.” In other words, to be creative, a person actually needs to make something tangible.

Hate to bring it up, especially because I don’t have a portfolio to display, but this question doesn’t make any sense.

First, it asks for a static commercial art piece (or a “portfolio” of these). Last time I’ve checked, those were very popular on television. Creativity regarded as a great copy, as an idea that makes a twist on a popular culture or that “captures the zeitgeist,” or as a piece-of-art logo and print ad may indeed belong to the same era as those media that defined it.

Second, the question asks for an individual creative genius (“show me whatyou’ve done”). Because, if advertising award shows are to be trusted, there are people among us who are very very talented in making pretty and funny stuff. Sometimes they even earn the title of “Sir” for it, but if the Queen is busy and that falls short, at least they get to be called a “Guru.” Which may be, in spiritual sense, even better.

And third, it asks for an agency (“why would I listen to this guy?”). Now, this being an unfair world, there are some agencies that are deemed to be more creative than others. What that usually means is that they are considerably better in making commercial art pieces for their clients that guarantee that those clients will make a pot of gold based on them. To prove this point, Crispin — in a streak of its usual genius — created a campaign that revolves around measuring girls’ butts for Old Navy. Don’t expect of advertising to get more creative than that.

Ok, let’s fast-forward now to creativity of the digital world. Here, most creative stuff that people create are relationships, connections, and interactions (think 4Chan model, or Tumblr model, or Twitter, or what any startup is building right now, for example). They connect tools with behaviors, with geo-locations, and with objects. They create networks or systems, if you will. To be creative there, you need to be, well, strategic: you need to figure out who connects to whom, when and why, and to what result. Simply, you need to plan for a chain reaction.

So what happens next in this scenario? These networks then give way to a collective creativity to become visible for all to use it, build upon it, change it, and add to it. In the same way as the concept of “lone inventor” turned out to be a myth and the concept of “big idea” turned out to be hoax, the notion of “big name” in advertising may turn out to be a fake.

Simply, an “advertising genius” holds no chance against the bulk of digital people who make their creative talent visible — and available — the moment they turn their computer on. Worse yet, their focus on coming up with witty, funny, pretty or smart piece can turn out into a liability: this is not a templated world, and thinking bound to 30 seconds or 50x100 pixels or in any other given frame is bound to fall short. For the ad solution to be successful, it needs to fit with the network created by stuff that people are already doing, talking about, and acting upon. Again, without a template to hold onto, one needs to be strategic.

Finally, with all this collective creativity connected in a network, what to do with a handful of creatives holding the fort in ad agencies? As Edward Boches told me on Twitter the other day, “the most interesting stuff has been done with individuals: Lemonade, Uniform Project, Vaynerchuck — all better than brand farts.” Why do we pay attention to them? Well, because they are doing something new, interesting, fun, and meaningful. And because no one knows where a good idea is going to come from, why limit it in advance to a creative team?

The bottomline is that digital creativity may as well end up having to do as much with observing as it does with making. Or, as Warren Bennis put it, “there are two ways to be creative. One can sing. One can dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers flourish.” At the end of the day, to create something needs both.

All of this is fun stuff, and it’s best to let people who face these challenges every day answer it. This is why I created an all-girl + a super-woman SxSW panelwhere one creative and three strategists talk about this stuff. Why all girl panel? Well, not to be all bra-burning about it, but hanging out only with guys can get so boring sometimes.

Originally published August 16, 2010