Creativity and Connection

If you’re a fan of AMC’s Mad Men, you’ve likely seen season seven’s infamous episode “The Monolith,” in which Sterling Cooper’s executives – under client pressure – install an IBM 360 computer that completely occupies what was once the agency’s creative lounge. This development ultimately drives one of Sterling Cooper’s most promising creative writers into the insane asylum.

Matthew Weiner, Mad Men‘s creator, is making a point that’s not particularly subtle here: that automation and creativity are at odds with each other, and that ultimately, automation wins. At the same time, however, in today’s marketing world, which is far more complex (and, I’d argue, more interesting) than it was in 1969, the year in which “The Monolith” is located, creativity hasn’t been replaced. While it’s certainly morphed into a form that Don Draper might not recognize at first glance, it’s just as important now as it was then – in fact, it’s more important than ever.


  1. Because humans still need to feel something. As I discussed in my last ClickZ column, emotion – not technology – drives online engagement. One of the big dangers inherent in techno-centric marketing is the tendency not to focus on the person – the individual recipient of a given message – but to instead obsess about the impersonal attributes of a person: those qualities or attributes making him/her a desirable “target” of a given marketing initiative. The fact that we’ve got all of this great targeting technology at our disposal is wonderful, but it falls flat if we fail to reach into the heart of our recipients and actually touch them. Thinking about personas (instead of “buckets”) is one step in the right direction, but I’d still like to see more thought put into what actually motivates individuals to take the actions they take. The answer to this question probably doesn’t lie in any online poll, focus group, or viral metric. It might, however, reside in something your child says to you, or something you overhear while riding a Long Island Railroad coach.
  2. Because ads still need to stand out. Much has been written about how the short-form restrictions of social media messaging and pay-per-click (PPC) ads have quashed creative potential. While there’s only so much you can say in a 40-character text ad or 140-character tweet, don’t forget that DDB’s classic, paradigm-shifting Volkswagen ad used exactly two words (“Think small”) to make its point. And so did Steve Jobs’ classic (and highly derivative) campaign for Apple (“Think different”). Character limits don’t throttle creativity; they simply redefine it so that your messaging must be native to the form and context of the channel.
  3. Because content still matters. Your landing pages will fail unless you give people a reason to stay. Your social media pages will fail if they lack the human touch. Your PPC ads will fail if you haven’t put yourself fully in the mind of the searcher and created something wonderful for them once they’ve clicked. What story is your brand telling? Where is the conflict (an essential element in any memorable story)? How is it resolved? Most importantly: why should we care about it? What, in other words, does it add to our experience of the world? Only by answering these questions can a brand rise above the corporate sameness – the boringness – of so much advertising today. And doing this requires real creativity.
  4. Because we long to be connected. Think about the one thing that connects all people: we’re born, we live, and someday, we will die. We’re also flawed, vulnerable, and searching for some kind of meaning to light our way forward. At the same time, brands spend millions to demonstrate their immortal, immutable strengths. In so doing, they profoundly distance themselves from us, and no amount of contrived messaging (“of course we really care about you”) can overcome this separation; it just worsens the tension. There’s no simple answer to the question of how brands can really connect to people in an authentic way, but here’s a suggestion: take a cue from Polaroid, which hired the late James Garner to do a series of spots in which Garner, while demonstrating Polaroid’s latest camera, was continually distracted by his wife. People still remember those spots today – more than 35 years after they aired – both because of Garner’s winning personality and because the scenario of being distracted while trying to do something serious is universal and thus it connected us.

Creativity and connection go hand in hand, and I’m bullish about the future of both. The Web has been with us for 20 years now, and creative marketers are only starting to scratch the surface of its creative potential. Bots can do amazing things but for now it takes humans to be most creative. For many of our marketing campaigns it will require creativity to succeed. What do you think about the future of creativity?

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.