Despite all the new tech presenting AI and data-driven insights and ideas, there remains one important trait that needs to be in every marketer's toolkit: creativity. And one of the chief responsibilities of marketing leaders, particularly the ones in the C-suite, is being able to build and maintain a culture that allows your team to get the creative juices flowing.
You have to be able to build a culture of creativity.
I’m Will, content lead for the CMO Alliance, and host of our podcast, CMO Convo. In my role, I’ve interviewed well over a hundred business and marketing leaders, and many of them have shared their insights with me on fostering creativity in their teams. Plus, I actually wrote my master’s dissertation on how best to drive creativity in advertising and marketing circles, so it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart.
Some of the most effective and beloved advertising and marketing is when it’s at its most creative. And with more and more noise on just about every channel, it’s an imperative now to be able to differentiate yourself with creative ideas. Even when you're speaking to your existing customers, the expectations are for experiences that are innovative and driven by exciting, creative ideas.
But it also can help with other elements. A creative culture isn’t just important for getting the best work out of your team. It can be essential for attracting and retaining talent. Creative thinkers will always be drawn to places where their ideas are valued and rewarded, and they’re given the space to develop them.
In this article, I’m going over the best insights from my interviews with CMOs and marketing leaders on creative cultures, along with some of my findings from my own research.
Creative culture vs creative environments
A lot of the language around marketing these days doesn’t seem to lend itself to creativity. “We need to make data-driven decisions”, “AI can produce ideas for us”, all that stuff.
But saying that “data” or “AI” is going to make all of the creative decisions is like saying that the paint made all the decisions when Michaelangelo was creating the Sistine Chapel. Data and AI simply provide the tools for your marketing team to use. Creativity is what allows marketers to turn those tools into effective campaigns and strategies.
In the past, when talking about business practices, we’d probably use phrases like “creative environment”, and there are heaps of examples of offices that have been set up to produce a “creative environment”. You know the ones: pinball machine, pool- and/or foosball table, mini fridge of over-priced craft beers. The classic bro-tastic start-up vibe that’s supposed to say “have fun, let the creative juices flow”, but more likely than not it's just clutter in the office as teams chase deadlines.
The concept of a creative environment isn’t a bad one, and the types of things done in this “bro-tastic” model do make sense, as they’re rooted in the idea that being able to have fun fuels creativity. If you think about the time in our lives when we’re probably at our most creative in raw terms, it’s when we’re young children, when we have the most opportunities to play and have fun.
But these kinds of environments are only as good as their accessibility. If your team isn’t able to find the time for “fun” with all these activities you’re presenting to them, it’s just clutter in the office while they try and hit deadlines.
The various Google campuses around the world are often held up as an example of these kinds of “creative environments”. However, Google goes further than bean bag chairs and slides. They have a “20% rule” where every Google employee is expected to spend at least 20% of their time on side projects, many of which are fun ones that utilize the environment available to them. For example, a team of Google engineers developed “the perfect pizza box” for their cafeteria in their 20%.
This is the distinction between a “creative environment” and a “creative culture”. A creative environment is just set dressing. A creative culture is the actions you’re taking to foster and develop creativity in your organization.
This difference is even more important in a world of hybrid and remote work. What are you gonna do, give every employee a pinball machine and ship them a case of beer each month (actually, that’s not a bad idea. If my boss is reading this: yes, yes you should do that…)? It’s clearly not practical, and more than a little intrusive to try and control your remote employees’ environments like that.
Furthermore, these kinds of environments only really speak to certain kinds of creativity. Not all creatives desire that kind of stimulation, and having it enforced on them is likely to do more harm than good.
That’s why a culture of creativity is important, one that gives people the space to develop creative ideas and develop them in a way that suits them best, not just throw lots of distractions at them.
Being able to explore creative ideas
In my marketing dissertation, I interviewed several UK marketing leaders on how they encourage creativity. There were two pieces of advice in particular that have shaped my approach to creativity and how I judge the level of support an organization offers the creative process from the late, great Peter Holden, founder of the Holden & Sons’ agency:
- “You can’t squeeze blood from a stone. If there’s a creative block, people need the room to step away and come back to it.” (Actually, Peter’s first advice was to go to the pub, but he admitted that wasn’t necessarily appropriate in modern business).
- “Marketers need to be like culture sponges, you never know what kind of reference will be useful.”
Providing space for both is key to an effective creative culture. You need to both give people the space on project timelines to allow for overcoming creative blocks and encourage a diverse array of interests and backgrounds across your team, to allow them to bring as many experiences and ideas as possible to the table.
Gastón Tourn, CMO of Curio, follows a similar philosophy when it comes to how he leads his team and teaches them to develop creative ideas.
For Gastón, the heart of marketing is storytelling, and the way he approaches it is rooted in the lessons he’s learned from his background in literary studies and creative writing, lessons that he shares with his team.
When it comes to marketing storytelling, Gastón encourages his team to think about them not just in marketing terms, but how to tell the stories using classic literary and storytelling techniques.
In our CMO Convo: Story Masters podcast mini-series, Gastón explains how he advises his team to explore new, fresh ideas when it comes to storytelling, with the goal of engaging the audience by presenting ideas to them in fresh, exciting ways.
“Ostranenie, or defamiliarization, captures people's attention, and that's what marketing tries to do as well. Our everyday lives sometimes can be quite monotonous and repetitive, and I think that’s why making the familiar unfamiliar or vice versa is so appealing. It presents a new way of looking at the things we see everyday.” - Gastón Tourn
Gastón encourages his team to explore new forms of storytelling across different genres of literature, film, television, and just about every genre and medium. He even goes so far as to advise his team not to read marketing advice books, but rather advice on literary criticism and storytelling techniques from authors in order to develop their skills.
In this way, Gastón encourages his team to take more time over building creative and engaging stories.
“It goes back a lot to the quote I always mention from John le Carré: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog's mat’ is a story.” I love it because I think it's very simple, but it kind of tells you why the antagonist in particular is so important. It's crucial, particularly in brand storytelling, to ask yourself who the dog is.
“A big mistake I see in marketing and brand storytelling: there's no dog, i.e. there’s no antagonist, which makes your storytelling pretty bland; the other mistake is making your brand the protagonist rather than the ally. It’s super important that you clarify who the antagonist is and make sure that the story is focused on a human being, and that you're just the ally helping that human being overcome challenges.” - Gastón Tourn
Creative cultures allow for risks and experimentation
A creative culture doesn’t just encourage your team to be more creative with what’s in front of them. In the ever-rapidly-changing world of marketing and business, with new technologies and channels appearing all the time and macroeconomic impacts changing the landscape, your team needs to be able to try new ideas and experiment with new approaches.
For Austin Beveridge, Head of Growth at Arc Technologies, a strong culture of experimentation was what allowed him in a previous role at Bolt to grow the company to a $12 billion valuation.
“We were encouraged to take risks. We were encouraged to be 20% wrong, which I think makes an environment of psychological safety, where people are willing to put themselves out there.” - Austin Beveridge
Austin raises a good point on “psychological safety”. One of the most important aspects of a creative culture is giving your team the freedom and confidence to try things that might not work.
That’s not to say they should be able to dive in and break things without worrying about consequences. Experienced CMO, Christy Raedeke, makes it clear that although she is a big fan of taking creative risks with marketing, they need to be calculated and considered risks.
“I think the most important thing is to start at the top and to get buy-in and to really explain what you're doing, I never want to do something just for a stunt. We don't want to do things that feel like they aren't authentic to the brand, all of the risks I've taken have been in service to the brand.
“And so when you can sit with the CEO, and the executive team and explain why this is important, and why what you're doing will cut through the clutter. I really think the most important thing here is cutting through the clutter. That's what we need to do with risky marketing.” - Christy Raedeke
It’s clear that a creative culture doesn’t equal an unstructured culture. The whole concept of “experimentation” requires documenting what’s been tried, and keeping track of the results.
Marketing Consultant Tim Parkin recommends having formal documentation of all experiments and creative ideas so that each time something new is tried, it can benefit the organization whether it pays off or not.
"This is what I call the book of knowledge. It's basically an internal wiki, a document, that houses everything about your marketing team.
“You want to include your reports, updates, changes, and campaign performance. You want to be able to see what's worked, what hasn't worked, what we can do differently going forward, and how we can improve our operations and optimization – the two areas that really matter – to get better results from the marketing we're doing.
“That book of knowledge grows and grows over time to become a truly valuable resource that people can reference and see what’s already been tried and what hasn’t been tried yet. And have an idea log to show what we need to do in the future. It becomes an invaluable resource, as your team keeps adding to it and maintaining it.
“As a marketing team, there are so many demands on us that we forget the great ideas that we have. We’ll figure out a change we need to make and then get distracted by something else. Having that documented is so important and so valuable.
“As the team comes up with insights, they can add them to this book of knowledge, then the rest of the team can apply those insights and scale them throughout all of your marketing, so whatever little thing you learn can be amplified and multiplied. It makes everything so much better.” - Tim Parkin
With this approach, you can ensure creative thinking is shown to be valuable to your team, while also making sure that new ideas and approaches are built on prior experiences.
The way forward
In an era of rapid business evolution, the willingness to take risks is more vital than ever for CMOs. However, risk-taking should never be an act of recklessness. Instead, it should be strategic and calculated, backed by research, and aligned with the company's goals. When embraced, even failure becomes a stepping stone to learning and improvement.
By fostering a culture that values storytelling, creativity, open communication, learning from failures, and calculated risk-taking, CMOs can position their organizations to stay ahead of the competition and achieve their goals. This approach ultimately helps to build deeper connections with customers, which is the ultimate goal of any successful marketing endeavor.
Finally, I should make it clear that although I’ve written this article from the perspective of CMOs and C-suite marketers, the lessons are applicable across other departments. Creativity is a benefit to almost every aspect of a business, and it's the duty of all C-suite leaders to help foster it.
Golden rules for building a creative culture
- Give people the time to be creative. Constant, back-to-back deadlines won’t allow people the time to overcome blocks and will lead them to just pumping out work that’s the bare minimum.
- Build diverse teams. Diverse interests and backgrounds will bring more ideas to the table, and when they mix together, that’s the perfect chemistry for creativity.
- Support your team in trying new ideas. Experimentation always comes with a risk, but you won’t know what works and what doesn’t unless you try.
- Keep records of your creativity, whether it was successful or not, so you can build on it. While it might sound counterintuitive, this kind of structure allows you to keep building on the work that’s been done.
The most successful businesses are the ones with the most creative cultures. And the leaders who succeed in them are the ones who can best build and maintain that culture effectively. The Alliance’s C-suite Masterclass Course is the perfect resource to build those skills so you can really make your mark in the C-Suite.