Why there is creativity left in the media

christopherwhitmoreForget A/B testing, in a piece that first appeared in Encore, Telstra’s Christopher Whitmore says the future of media lies in the hands of creativity.

In a recent meeting I attended, a senior business leader stated “there is no creativity left in media”. He made the point that creativity can now only be found in the realm of content creators, while the rest of the industry is entirely consumed with the unimaginative task of increasing revenues and lowering costs.

As a product manager, I would never be one to argue against profitability. Media, after all, is a business like any other and my role is built around profit and loss responsibility. Even the ABC and SBS have an obligation to the taxpayer to spend their budgets wisely. But in a time of old media’s declining profits, and new media’s continued adolescence, we have become so focused on making money we have lost sight of what it means to be creative.

Prior to launching its new compact format, The Sydney Morning Herald made much of the use of “neuro-testing” and eye-tracking technology to empirically understand audience interest in its content. Yahoo!’s new CEO Marissa Mayer is infamous for A/B testing 41 different shades of blue when developing a new toolbar during her previous role at Google. While there is no doubt these approaches are incredibly powerful when problem solving, has it now got to the point where we are simply outsourcing our creativity to our audience?

Prior to starting my career in media, I planned to be a scientist. I even completed a year of a biotechnology course at UNSW, and worked for six months in the hematology department of Douglass Hanly Moir laboratories before finally admitting defeat. I now consider myself a ‘media man’ (for all that’s worth), but the truth is, a scientist’s heart still beats in my chest.

If anyone should be comfortable with basing decision making on qualitative analysis, it should be me. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling we are starting down the wrong road − the one with raised cobblestones that clearly leads to a dark forest of clawing trees and disembodied screams. Thankfully, there is evidence to back up my gut feeling.

Objectively speaking, media’s major innovations of the last century have been truly creative. Television, radio and glossy magazines all launched and grew their market without access to A/B testing. Even the more modern innovations of the internet – mobile apps and digital radio – began without widespread market research. As far as I know, there was no quantitative analysis to show 140 characters was the right number for Twitter.

What has changed is the role of media businesses in these innovations. Too often these days we are being forced to adopt changes to our business models rather than lead from the front. Companies like Google, Apple and Amazon are creating the structures for “new media”, rather than the free-to-air networks or national newspapers.

Of course, today, content is still king. Media businesses are still largely weighted according to their access to content. Fairfax and News Limited assure us their most valuable asset is their journalistic integrity; Foxtel has built its business on the back of sports rights; and in my own world of movies and TV, it’s the big Hollywood studios that matter.

But content will not thrive in a creative vacuum.

As businesses like Netflix have shown us, content will follow innovation. Netflix is now a content powerhouse developing original series like House of Cards and breathing new life into old franchises as they have done with Arrested Development. It was not content that made Netflix succeed, but a creative idea of charging a subscription to send people DVDs in the post.

The problem may indeed be with our attitude to creativity. For media businesses to take back the lead in innovation, creativity needs to be nurtured and celebrated. The future of our businesses will be built on creative business models and the creative user interfaces that engage and inspire our audiences − not to mention creative approaches to the technology and investment problems that face us today.

So should we admit there is no creativity left in media, or is creativity the only way media will survive?

Christopher Whitmore is the group manager of BigPond Movies, and one of the founding players of the Telstra T-Box product.

Encore Issue 15

This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


  1. Merus
    27 May 13
    3:05 pm

  2. This piece seems to be assuming that A/B testing is diametrically opposed to creative solutions. It’s not. A/B testing, done right, allows creatives to sanity-check their designs against their audience and prove to numbers-focused executives that their creative expertise makes a difference. Leave A/B testing 41 shades of blue to Google.

  3. aplusa
    27 May 13
    3:27 pm

  4. I have to disagree about the point where Netflix is a content powerhouse … House of Cards and the new season of Arrested Development was basically based off a excel spreadsheet where Netflix was guaranteed a return on investment if they produced the show, similar to how Relativity Media made money in movies a few years back (http://www.esquire.com/feature.....naugh-1209) .

    It’s changing the way content is produced but it isn’t revolutionary.

  5. Amy Jo
    27 May 13
    3:57 pm

  6. I would argue it’s about the talent in the creative, rather than the creative in the talent for Media’s future.

  7. Christopher Whitmore
    27 May 13
    7:19 pm

  8. Hi Merus, thanks for your comment. I completely agree that A/B testing is a great tool for sanity-checking. But you must first have a creative idea to check. My concern is more to do with an over-reliance on these and similar tools for decision making. I worry about what I see as a shift in the internal culture of media business – where long-term “creative” vision is often lost in the short-term number-crunching. As Amy Jo says, it is creative talent that needs to be nurtured to build successful business. And it is these business that will ultimately fund the next generation of content production.

  9. H
    29 May 13
    4:35 pm

  10. 4 comments, enough said