Brand-side marketers are suffering a creative drought – here, have a sip

As budgets shrink and resources tighten, brand marketers are juggling very different aspects of marketing, but there’s a lot broken with how internal marketing teams curate creative ideas, says Mia Fileman.

Mia Fileman 150 BWPresently, in-house marketers either brief an external agency that incubates independently then pitches back, or creative strategy is a function piled onto an already weighed-down marketer wearing multiple hats with the rise of ‘slash roles’ –  marketing/PR/social media/events/sponsorship manager.

In the decade I spent in brand management roles for FMCG corporates – Kraft, Bic and L’Oreal – my fellow in-house marketers and I spent close to zero time forward thinking as we were forced to focus solely on quarterly budgets. We relied exclusively on our advertising agencies and global teams to define our brand for the years to come.

This tunnel vision and lack of focus on long-term brand suppresses creativity at every step. 

I recently spoke with two brand managers from FMCG companies. Even though they presented me with two varying descriptions of their roles, both share a common challenge; creativity is simply not a priority. 

The first one commented that coming up with creative ideas or campaigns was not considered part of her, or any internal team’s role. When asked if she ever put forward creative solutions, she responded that she would hesitate in doing so, lacking the confidence, instead deferring to their agency roster of creative experts.

The second explained that even though creative strategy was part of her job function, so was PR, brand partnerships, social media and events. With limited resources, outsourcing to an agency was not an option, so she would ideate with her team internally, squishing it in among her other tasks. 

Outsourcing creativity means you don’t curate those skills internally, so you are always dependent on external resources. Instead, internal teams should be encouraged to try new ideas and be allowed to accept permissible risks. This is perhaps why so many great ideas end up on the cutting room floor. Teams can’t sell them in. Getting the sign off would take too long, and so they revert to tactics that they can ‘get away with’.

Getting it right

Smaller brands and startups are doing things differently and are punching well above their weight. 

Brands like Dollar Shave Club don’t default to people with ‘creative’ in their title; it’s the lifeblood of the organisation. An internal team brainstormed those videos that have transformed a static category and propelled Dollar Shave Club to a billion dollar business.

Take product development at Dollar Shave Club. Fadi Mourad, chief innovation officer at Dollar Shave Club, spent 15 years developing products at Bumble and Bumble and Estée Lauder. He became accustomed to long meetings where trend forecasters would dissect runway shows and fashion magazines. “My first executive meeting here was eye-opening because nobody cared what those trends were,” says Mourad.

Instead, the Dollar Shave Club often turned to regular guys and asked what they needed, what they were excited to try, and what basics could be improved upon. “That’s never how I would have started the innovation process anywhere else,” says Mourad.

This approach continues to save Dollar Shave Club a lot of hassle. About 80% of the products it tries out eventually make it to market. This process of small consumer panels has generated a substantial trove of customer data. Most companies distribute consumer goods through retailers, so they never know who their best consumers are, but Dollar Shave Club connected directly with the source.

Failing to keep up with changing consumer tastes led to years of decline for Mattel, but in October 2018, the toy maker posted positive quarterly cash flow for the first time in three years. It grew revenues for its second consecutive quarter, a feat it hadn’t achieved since 2013. Credit is being attributed to the latest CEO, Ynon Kriez, the fourth since 2012. He is shifting the emphasis away from short term sales, instead focusing on brand building and Mattel’s portfolio of characters, as there hasn’t been a genuine hit in years – the likes of Barbie, Hot Wheels and Thomas the Tank Engine are now definitely in ‘the greatest hits’ section.

In 2017, McKinsey Digital published an article examining the link between creativity and business performance, demonstrating that the most creative companies were able to turn that creative ethos into business value and growth. The most creative companies performed better than peer organisations on both financial performance and McKinsey’s innovation score. They did so by doing certain things differently.

How can we do better?

Think different

Apple nailed it. For fear of stating the obvious, we should probably start with changing the culture and mindset of organisations towards one where creativity is part of every job function. 

Like CX, creative strategy cannot just be the job function of one team but rather should be hardwired into daily work. This is difficult given the relentless pressure to meet financial targets. The mentality needs to be ‘there’s a startup that’s plotting to blindside us with a customer-centric solution. We need to think, talk and behave like them’.

Let’s change the internal dialogue, which for many organisations is so heavily skewed inward; products, categories, franchises, quantities and market shares dominate the narrative.

Redefine the role of in-house marketers. 

Just like any honed skill, creativity improves with practice. Yes, some people are more naturally more talented than others, but equally many creatives with great talent don’t understand how they can operate in a complex organisation to get things done. But brand managers do. They are machine-like at translating concepts into implementation. 

To make room for more creativity internally, something else has to give. I’ve been a brand marketer, worked in agency and am now a startup founder. I have seen all sides and know that in-house marketers spend valuable time focused in the wrong areas and juggling too many balls. There is a ‘way things are done’ in big corporations and when change happens it does so from the top down. Lower-level managers are expected to toe the line, but effective creative change can come from all levels.

Creativity feeds on insights, but a brand manager spends a great deal of time looking at and reporting on scan data, which shows results rather than insights. Customer insights are what feed the creative process, leading us to useful ideas.

Related: Two brands that understood the difference between insight and observation »
Treasure box stairs

Standard methods like surveys and focus groups are not delivering deep insights. The most creative companies regularly observe customers in their own environments, and they understand the problems customers are seeking to solve through the use of products and services. Small brands and startups tap into these insights with grassroots activations where marketers can come face to face with end users.  

Creativity is a state of mind; it needs breathing room. The pressure to hit quarterly targets is always going to take priority until someone releases the steam valve. 

Physical environment 

To create a physical environment where creativity can ruminate, you don’t need to go all-out Google offices. Reducing the quantity, length and number of bodies in meetings will make a huge impact. The more one-on-one sessions, ideally over walks outside, the better. Anandamide, also known as ‘the bliss molecule’, is stimulated with physical activity and natural light boosts the immune system, increases dopamine levels and lowers cortisol levels, all of which are more conducive to a creative state.

Taking a leaf from startups and allowing employees to work remotely with more flexibility, will also do just fine. No beanbag chairs and chalkboard walls required. Less on-site training and more opportunities for marketers to leave the concrete jungle and the information overload behind. 

There’s a science to why trendy office digs have neon signs and colourful stools – colour makes us more childlike, playful and adventurous. Clutter and overflowing filing cabinets, however, make us feel anxious and overwhelmed.

Change is coming but is it quick enough? Companies can do better at embedding creativity into daily practices. 

To bring creativity in rather than outsourcing it out.

To dream while we analyse. 

This will go some way toward defending your flank from startups, because rest assured, they’re coming for you.

Mia Fileman is cofounder and creative strategist at Idiello

Further Reading:

Image credit:Daniel Cheung