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Creativity Belongs in the C-Suite

Anyone who knows me knows that I am OBSESSED with podcasts. I listen to a lot of true crime (I can't help it, it's compelling!), but to balance all that icky out, I also listen to some more positive podcasts. The other day I listened to one of Simon Sinek's A Bit of Optimism episodes in particular that really got me thinking.

In the episode title [Ideas That Stick with advertising legend Lee Clow] he and Lee dug into his impressive advertising career that created some of the most iconic advertisements and societal shifts in modern pop culture. As a 10 year advertising agency veteran myself, it is always fun to hear the behind the scenes of how ad folks get from point A to point B. I highly recommend a listen to anyone who wants to hear a bit of the behind the scenes of how Lee worked with Steve Jobs to shape and mold the iconic Apple brand to be what it is today. But that is not even the part of this episode that really struck me.

Where did all the creativity go?

The part of the pod that I found most fascinating starts around the 9:40 mark where Sinek asks, "What was it about [Steve Jobs] that allowed people like you and the people who worked at Apple to be so creative? Because there's no lack of creative people in the world today, why is the same innovation and creativity seemingly not coming out of companies today? What did he have that is lacking today?"

His question is so spot on. Because he is completely right - Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, and when I take a step back and really think about it, we haven't seen such creativity nor seismic cultural shifts as a result of that creativity since. And this not only applies to creativity in marketing, but also creativity in product design too. Instead we've shifted into automation and utilizing data to dictate our every move. Creative minds didn't evaporate into thin air - we just stopped relying on creativity or even listening to it to connect with people.

Don't get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of utilizing data to understand target audiences and what makes them tick. However, somewhere along the way that data became the only thing that matters to where the actual audience doesn't even necessarily matter, just the data they represent. Thus, we have removed memorable creative and are just cranking out basic messages en masse. We've shifted from meaningful, quality content that is intended to connect with audiences to grinding out as much content as possible to feed the machine. Essentially we have too much content that says very little now and it's overwhelming audiences.

(For the record, yes I know AI is a big shift in our society. But to me it's more of an evolution of automation and finding other opportunities to build automation and machine learning into every day tasks based on the collection of so much data. It's not necessarily creative or new or fresh. In many ways it's recycling and repackaging what already exists.)

Coming back to Sinek's podcast, he and Clow teased out that the secret to such creative success was that Steve Jobs himself was extremely creative, loved and respected marketing and always had a direct line of communication with his ad agency teams. In fact, they mused that for several of the most successful creative brands, agencies had a direct line of communication with the CEO.

Creativity Needs a Resurgence

This brings us once again to the importance of creativity and marketing representation in the C-Suite. Because most CEOs usually rise through the ranks of a company as a finance, operations or sales person, they aren't necessarily going to be inherently creative-minded. Nor are they going to even be marketing-minded. In fact, according to McKinsey, only 10% of Fortune 250 CEOs have any marketing experience and on 4% previously held a CMO role.

With such a minor amount of marketing representation in the CEO role combined with the degradation of agency to CEO relationships, of course creativity has suffered. And as a result, of course creating meaningful content that is memorable has suffered. So where do we go from here?

At a minimum, we need to increase the representation of marketing in the C-Suite so that CMOs can advocate for brand, and above all, creativity. But a bigger and likely more potent way to bring creativity back into play is for CEOs to come from creative and marketing backgrounds. Imagine what product design could look like with a creative leader in place? Or how much more meaningful relationships with customers would become if those in charge of organizations came from a mindset of focusing on customers and how to creatively wrap the entire business around those customers, not on spreadsheets, data and the bottom line?


As with any new wave of technology or trend in society, the focus on data, not creativity is in full swing right now. But hopefully with recognition that we've lost the 'Steve Jobs affect' - or the affect of creative minds like his to shift based on customer needs and challenges - we can reflect on the path we're on. And hopefully we can make adjustments to corporate cultures to bring creativity back to the forefront. I, for one, would love to see what would happen if creativity reigned supreme again.

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