Creativity as competitive advantage – Part 1

I just finished devouring Josh Linkner’s Disciplined Dreaming.  In it, Linkner asserts, in my opinion correctly, that we live in an era in which business cycles are measured in months, not years, and that the only way to sustain long-term innovation and growth is through creativity – at all levels of an organization.  Said another way:  creativity represents the only sustainable competitive advantage.  Seth Godin‘s endorsement of the book sums it up nicely: “The creativity gap is real and it’s getting worse. Linkner challenges you to become a disruptive force for change.”  As a marketer who has spent the last 20 years constantly challenging the status quo with creative ideas and encountering resistance to those ideas, Linkner felt like a kindred spirit, and his words were music to my ears.  Said another way:  “I’m not crazy!”

For me, this book was validation of the approach I have taken every day I go to work, where developing creativity – mine and others’ – is my primary role.  Because few or no processes have really existed for nurturing creativity in the workplace, I’ve often taken on the role of creativity cheerleader somewhat in isolation, encouraging it, rewarding it, and pushing others to push the boundaries, often doing so without authority or the backing of a “process”.  This can be difficult and painful, so I loved the way Linkner put a stake in the ground with a five-step guide to “disciplined dreaming”, or what I have called “creativity combined with intellectual rigor”.

His process, which many of us actively follow without realizing it, includes:  defining the problem, preparing for the process that will reveal a solution, discovering different paths to get to the solution, and “ignition,” a fantastic chapter on innovative ideation methodologies that I’m now adding to my solid repertoire of techniques.  I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to publish some upcoming posts on idea generation, and I will get around to that and to putting forth my thoughts on the change management challenges it entails.  But today and in Part 2 next time, I want to leap-frog and focus on the fifth and last step in Linkner’s process:  ‘The Launch’ – bringing your ideas to life.

I am a strong believer in prototyping ideas and conducting demonstration projects to test and launch ideas.  Over many projects in the high-tech industry, where I’ve been outnumbered by left-brainers, I’ve learned that it is much easier and faster to get buy-in to new ideas if you can show how they come to life.  Walls that were put up come down and aha! moments happen through the use of videos, slides, a mocked-up website or ad, a customer testimonial, or a simulated customer conversation. Linkner explores these and other ways to bring your ideas to life.

But, he does not explore the relationship that can accelerate the process and optimize this critical phase – the relationship with a creative agency.  I’d like to share my thoughts on this with you.

The use of a creative agency for execution of a campaign or specific program is common.  It is not as common to use an agency in the earlier ideation or selling phases of an idea.  One of my mantras as a marketer has always been, “I don’t outsource strategy.”  Defining the customer, developing a zealous understanding of the customer, ensuring that the marketing goals align to the business goals, and creating unique, compelling strategic points of view that ladder to the brand are all requirements of the job that marketers must own and drive.  Having said that, a partnership with a creative agency in the ideation and selling phases can be a progressive, positive force that yields competitive advantage, especially when you’re trying to solve a very tough problem.  I’ve used creative agencies in the past for these strategic phases for three reasons:

  1. They make a living being creative.  Where sometimes  bureaucracy, ambiguity, resistance, and fear can inhibit creativity in the corporate environment, the whole raison d’être of a creative agency is to be creative.  There is no history of stifling creative expression; in fact, it’s just the opposite.  Their very jobs are on the line.  To have that level of highly-trained and experienced professionals on your project can mean the difference between good and great and can inspire creativity in the client.
  2. They are objective.  They provide an unbiased second opinion.  I believe this is priceless.  As marketers, we drink the proverbial Kool-Aid all too often.  A creative agency can steer us back to the customer, can ask hard questions without having a vested interest in the answers, and can see things we just don’t see because we’ve overlooked it, turned a blind eye to it, or pretended we didn’t see it.  This is why agencies don’t advertise themselves – they have no objectivity.  Doing the “house ad” is the worst assignment possible.
  3. They are flexible and have your back.  They don’t get upset about sudden shifts in strategic direction.  They will work tirelessly through the night to get you something the next day.  They will give you as many iterations as you want.  All with a smile.

How does this lead to competitive advantage?  The obvious reasons are:

  • Speed:  Collaborating with an agency can accelerate ideation and speed time to an answer and to execution.
  • Scalability:  The agency can become an extension of your team, enabling multiple, simultaneous demonstration projects, the ability to reach more people internally, and real-time feedback to further inform decisions.
  • Quality:  The client/agency collaboration can make your good ideas great.  

The more nuanced reason is the central theme found throughout Linkner’s book:  creativity cannot be copied or replicated. 

What do you think?  Have you used a creative agency to help you through strategic ideation and selling of your ideas?  What was your experience?

5 thoughts on “Creativity as competitive advantage – Part 1

Add yours

  1. Great post Teresa. My mantra of late is that good marketing Marketing = (where you are in the sales cycle) + (to whom are you talking) + (what must you say). Bad marketing is a jump to an exclusive execution of ingredient three (“We need ‘messaging’! Just give me some ‘messaging’!)

    Too often marketers and “creative agencies” either leave out or discount the first two ingredients. Or, they get so caught up in the admittedly sexy tactics of delivering “what must you say” (blog! youtube! contest! new tradeshow booth! social PR push! guest speaker!) that they forget to actually make sure they are saying what they must say.

    Additionally, I’ve worked for too many clients (and companies) in my career where “marketing” means the guy/gal who designs the brochures and the web site.

    On the plus side, I’ve recently met with a number of folks who get it. I hope I can work with them!




  2. As you know, I very recently put this maxim to the test, with terrific results. But I think you almost glide right past a key point: it remains the marketer’s responsibility to own the strategic elements of the creative process (understanding the target, goals, and—for lack of a better word—facts). This is key, because a psychological block to hiring a creative agency is the fear of loss of ownership. “I couldn’t come up with the concept, so I had to get a consultant to do it.” This couldn’t be more wrong, and it may help to always keep in mind your own essential and irreducible responsibility, no matter who else or how many others contribute.


  3. Gary and Guy, thanks so much for your comments!

    To Gary’s point, yes, we often see the jump to deliverables before the strategy is complete……or dare I say even started? This conjured another thought: with a good agency partner involved in the up-front steps and a solid strategy in place, the deliverables flow out quickly and beautifully.

    To Guy’s comment: I don’t think I ‘glided’ past the point that marketers should not outsource strategy, but I appreciate the clarity Guy has brought to this discussion very much. Many marketers don’t collaborate with a creative agency on strategic ideation because they think it means they are failing at not being able to do it themselves. The goal is great work and a creative collaboration with the right agency can yield amazing results. It is the marketer’s role to empower the agency to exercise great creativity while actively leading, driving, and participating in the process and also ensuring that the target, business goals, marketing goals, etc are front and center. The old saying “crap in, crap out” during execution can be replaced with “great in, great out” when a collaboration with an agency begins at the strategic ideation phase.


  4. Teresa, how do you reconcile “creativity cannot be copied or replicated” with a five-step (or 12-step…) process for people to try to train themselves to be more creative? I agree with the former and found that the latter is about as effective as trying to teach me how to be an effective sales person. I can internalize the steps, I can improve a little, but I will always be on the lagging side of the bell curve for sales effectiveness. It boils down to the core question about any skill set…nature vs. nurture. Can anyone be taught to be extremely creative (and then retain it through decades of life experiences and adulthood) or do you have to be born with it? Tough question but seems central to the book…thoughts?


  5. Paul, great question! I wrote a blog post on this last month (see “Overheard: I’m not creative”).

    Yes, I do believe that all humans have the capacity to be creative. Some are more creative than others for sure, but the capacity exists in all of us and it must be nurtured or it can remain unrealized, whither, or even die. The extent to which creative potential is realized or not depends on the environment and the individual’s willingness to face the fear and resistance. I also believe that if you have prolonged experiences where your creativity is suppressed, it is harder to recover and grow your creativity, but it is still possible.

    I went through a stage where my creativity was suppressed. Recovering it came about in a very big way after working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way book. It’s a tough book to get through, but so worth it. I think Linkner’s process is a terrific guide to exercise the creativity muscles in the workplace and encourage others to do so, particularly for people who don’t come by it naturally.

    I think the “disciplined” aspect that Linkner highlights is very important. Like anything in life, you have to show up, work at it, exercise it, etc. in order to master it.

    Thanks again for following! Best, T


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