Respect for creatives has dissolved, leaving us with crap creative we’ve become desensitised enough to like

Matt Batten asked 63 senior peers to unpack why we've become desensitised to good ideas. These days, he argues, an idea is only 'creative' once it's won an award. And executive creative directors are being disrespected and undervalued because of it.

There’s been much talk in recent years, especially among advertising creatives, about how much harder it has become to sell great ideas. Not just to clients, but also internally.

So, I recently gathered the opinions of 63 peers around the world to understand how they felt about the value and respect for creativity, creatives, and creative leadership.

While several still felt that creativity was valued (or at least “perceived as valuable” as some described it in a careful mincing of words), the experiences and anecdotes of many reflected a state in which creative directors of all levels felt disenfranchised and disempowered. Even in their own agencies.

We’ve become desensitised to good ideas, and respect for creatives has eroded as a result

Not so long ago, the entire agency relished the creative department’s unconventional imaginings as a cohesive team, and clients were mesmerised by the inventive concepts roughly sketched on A3 bleed-proof paper. Many of my survey respondents feel they are under-appreciated, their wealth of experience ignored or questioned, and their creative ability democratised.

My test subjects compared the way in which they themselves treated their own creative leaders and mentors as they went up through the ranks to the way in which staff and clients now treat them. Respect seems to have dissolved or diluted over the past 10 years.

Where, once upon a time, the agency’s ECD would single-handedly determine the one idea that goes forth and teams would dutifully ensure that vision came to life, now those same teams gather around a boardroom table debating the flaws of every concept and espousing their personal opinions – ignoring the experience of their leaders.

When my respondents were juniors, mids or even senior creatives, never would they have had the temerity to question or disagree with their ECD, nor did they witness account managers, planners, producers, designers, receptionists or the courier hotly debate their own personal views against the ECD’s creative recommendations. But now they find themselves questioned at every turn.

With my subject pool being broad enough, large enough and successful enough, it’s highly unlikely they are all terrible creative leaders who witnessed a generation of unquestionably incredible creative leaders. So what is the cause?

Today’s briefs are more complex, media more fragmented, Gen-Y attitudes have disrupted, financial crises scared clients into questioning everything, data over-ran human insights and gut instinct, consumer susceptibility diminished and cynicism grew, digital technology exploded, society got woke and myriad other things have made the advertising industry a brave new world.

But all of that should add to the exciting challenge of selling the right product to the right person at the right time, not make creative ideas less acceptable straight off the bat.

It reminds me of French theatregoers in 1896 who shrieked with panic as August and Louis Lumière’s sepia-toned locomotive trundled toward them on the silver screen. They had never before seen a moving picture. The only trains that had ever hurtled toward them before that day were real. And dangerous. In 1896, it would have been a natural response to panic.

But such a reaction seems absurd to us today. This step change progresses with every sensory experience. We become desensitised until the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan are merely a bunch of actors stumbling over splatters of ketchup. And while we understand desensitisation – and broader behavioural psychology – because we work in this industry and know its wily ways, we aren’t immune to it.

In the same way theatregoers once yelled at a locomotive and later applauded a gorilla clinging to the Empire State Building, screamed when a rubber shark attacked Amity Beach but barely batted an eyelid when Smaug desolated, perhaps we have become desensitised to creativity and ideas.

Jaws used to make us jump

Social media, and streaming platforms, feed millions of ideas and thoughts and images and films directly to our pockets. We are absorbing more information and experiences than ever before.

Surely this level of exposure affects our response to the stimuli. Behavioural psychology says it must.

So when a creative idea is put forward to our internal teams, and our clients, their baseline of reference is now a thousand times more cluttered. This over-exposure to entertaining and innovative ideas makes the concept before them seem less interesting, less inspiring. More ‘meh’. We’ve lost our ability to be inspired by the new.

While my survey respondents agree that the industry still says it values creativity, and clients still ask to be ‘challenged’, the benchmark for what is a creative idea has morphed and shifted until it has become impossible to know. Now, something isn’t creative until it’s won an award. Too many people review new ideas while armed with swords to cut them down, rather than shields to defend them.

And there are many people. Of those 63 creative leaders, about two-thirds mentioned creative reviews take the form of a committee before it’s even left the agency.

It would be nice to think we could dial back our exposure, and take a technology detox. But, as marketers, we also need to stay abreast of cultural trends and be inspired by them. It also seems apropos that our own baseline of creativity be akin to the consumer’s.

Numerous studies in the fields of exposure therapy, stereotypes, prejudice, brand preference and aesthetics have identified a phenomenon named mere exposure effect – the repeated exposure to an initially neutral stimulus increases the liking of that stimulus.

Basically, see a lot of crap content or bad creative and you’ll start to like it.

To avoid that, we can embrace the results of today’s mere exposure effect. If we acknowledge the tsunami of inspiration presented to consumers every day, we can be bolder in our concepts, step out of the on-brand/ off-brand debate, stop playing it safe, release the handcuffs of old and appreciate a goddam good idea when it smacks us in the face.

We need to put away our swords and grab our shields.

Matt Batten is the executive creative director at Edge


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