Creativity by numbers

Creativity killed by numbers?

Do you subscribe to a technical or professional e-zine?  If you do, like most people who are engaged in some of online occupation, you wouldn’t have failed to notice that these days you are almost obliged to do things by numbers.  Puzzled?  Well, just access your page for instance, or a similar news aggregator, and you will see what I mean.

In my latest foray in these information channels today I counted about 40% of all the featured articles as starting with a numeral, like ‘Seven ways of optimising your content (I am making it up, the article in question actually stated nine…)’, ‘Ten ways to impress your partner’, ‘Three exclusive tips to ensure your profile is visible on LinkedIn’… you’ll get my drift.

Chopping onions

I know that you and I and all those a little longer in the tooth like me, will appreciate that this is just a bit of sensationalism, a way of attracting readers’ attention, but there is an inherent and subtle danger in such elementary approach.  The thing is that in life you can’t even realistically list seemingly simple steps like those enumerated in a recipe.  Confused?  Well, take a banal action like chopping an onion.  It would be listed as a single step in most recipe books, but you and I know that in real life this is rubbish.  You don’t just ‘chop an onion’, you search for it first, then you try to locate the chopping board, which is never in its place but has temporarily migrated inside the dishwasher and therefore needs cleaning, grab a suitably sharp knife, scrimmage around in the veggies basked for the only onion left and which has started germinating, peel it and look for the nearest box of tissues to wipe copious tears off your eyes, etc. – hardly a single step…!

In moderation a step by step approach is fine of course (and recipe books are the ideal example), but we are truly exaggerating now when it comes to professional activities and this may be to the detriment of experimentation and creativity.  The point is that there is hardly ever an instance where your specific business needs will be addressed by a single 1-2-3 approach.  There are at best milestones, but quite often you will need to add a variety of other paces in between and the more creative the task the least concerned about form filling and steps you’ll be.

Too many lists stifle creativity

So a step by step approach is particularly inappropriate and obnoxious when it comes to original thinking.  Do you think that Michelangelo was painting by numbers when he created the Sistine Chapel, or that he opened a manual and followed the ‘twelve steps to

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

paint an awkward ceiling’? Of course not.  Like all artists, architects and sculptors he was instinctively aware of the necessary milestones, but he used his limitless human inspiration to achieve that masterpiece, untrammelled by unnecessary and artificial impositions.

If by now you have lost the thread it’s probably because I am not setting myself artificial boundaries in making my point.  All I wanted to say, in simple terms,  is that a stepped approach may be practical, but too much of it, like too much of all good things, may stifle creativity and may give you a false sense of security too.

But if your mind only works in steps and want to know 7 things you didn’t know about the Sistine chapel just click here

Now enjoy the summer, in three easy steps:

a) stop browsing the Internet reading inconsequential blogs like this

b) get outdoors

c) lie down in the sun


Related articles


Marketing Summit 2013

Marketing summit 2013 – a view from the forest

According to Anne Godfrey, the recently elected CEO of the CIMA, companies controlled at least 80% of their communication output a few years ago.  These days this figure has dropped to just 20%.  It soon became evident that this was one of underlying concerns of the CIM 2013 summit in London last Friday, held at the swanky offices of Bloomberg UK.  One of the key questions for marketers and communications specialists is how to adapt to this ever-changing scenario without losing our clients, or our marbles…

But it was Daniel Rowles who set the tone of the day with his incisive presentation.  His empirical research revealed that the three most discussed topics by marketers for the last twelve months are, in this order, ‘Google Glasses’ (good PR work from Google!), ‘Big Data’ and ‘Content Marketing’.  On the topic of data alone, 16 years of viewing time is currently uploaded to YouTube every day and 24% of it comes from mobile devices.  It is clearly impossible to view all this data and even its mere analysis is something that is keeping major governments incredibly busy, as events of the last few weeks testified.

Mobile content was another hot topic of the day.  With mobile access, communication agility is key.  Responsive design and highly honed broadcast processes are built with the sole purpose of engaging with what audiences really want to receive, rather than what companies would like them to read.

Bring parallel thinking to online marketing

The old paradigm of companies basing their online content strategy on their own core competences is dead as potential customers may not necessarily be interested in the same keywords and phrases but may be looking for an answer to a parallel solution.  Therefore, this all elusive ‘solution’ is what businesses should focus on in their communication efforts.  For example, if you want to lose weight you may be searching something like, ‘I am too fat’, rather than the more obvious ‘How can I lose weight?’  Addressing the former concern may open your business up to a more receptive audience than the more obvious traditional approach, contributing to a higher Google ranking for your products and services.  And ranking these days may even be aided by peer reviews that allow your customers and supporters to enter content on your behalf.  Risky?  Well, welcome to agile and responsive 21st century communication strategies!

Understand a buyer’s journey

But what about big data?  One thing we are not short of in the digital world is data.  In fact, it appears that there is now far too much of it.  Take a look at your Google Analytics, add a sprinkling of social media data, plus your own sources and you will soon end up with vast quantities of mostly indigestible data, or information of such gargantuan complexity that you will need to end up hiring a team of Harvard postgraduates to analyse the lot.  You can, of course, cheat (like most of us) and just pick and choose a specific metric.  Or, as Matt Hollingsworth of Acxiom mentioned later on in the day, you can act as if you are walking in a forest – follow your path but remain fully aware of background noises, especially if anything peculiar comes to your ears, like the distant clap of thunder that may herald a storm.

The additional problem with data is that a lot of time and effort is spent in its acquisition, rather more in fact than in its use to understand a buyer’s journey; yet understanding this essential experiential voyage from the moment a need is identified to the instant when the customer is ready to part with his or her hard earned cash is key to a successful online strategy.  But how many companies can really be confident that they fully understand this journey?

Integrative communication strategies

Michael Dick, Head of Strategy MEC Global, touched on the topic of what clients want from agencies and how businesses need to create a cohesive communication strategy.  His seven I’s (Interaction, Ideas, Integration, Implementation, Internationalisation, Impact and (Ro)Investment) represent quite clearly what a client wants from an agency, providing probably one of the pithiest answers to this specific topic – food for thought for many of us.  More emphasis on content from this speaker too, especially about allowing people to tell their own story, which explains the success of experiential sites like TripAdvisor.  An integrative communication strategy of this kind would deliver value, as well as extending outreach beyond the scope of your initial campaign.  By letting your champions talk on your behalf you may even save your company’s money.  But don’t just think that you can fire your copywriters by letting your customers do the spade work for you, as you will now need to employ more people to monitor content and to react, as quickly as possible, to any of the moods.  It’s agile communication all over again…

Just after lunch, Louise Brice, Research Director IPSOS MORI flexed her muscle by presenting a wealth of data, demonstrating both this company’s supreme ability to deal with research, as well as the fact that you should never let a data analyst loose with a presentation.  Much of the data on offer supported mobile marketing – just in case a few marketers in the room, or the 2,000 or so online, had lived for the last few years in a monastic community and had missed out on these trends. Nevertheless, figures like only 39% of all web sites being fully mobile optimised made for some sobering reading.

In conclusion…

Mobile strategy continued to be at the top of the agenda with the question of whether we should stop thinking about optimisation, creating instead content specifically aimed at mobile platforms, to reflect, for example, haptic technologies.  An interesting parallel was drawn by the discussion panel with TV, a now fully digital medium, but one still reliant on cumbersome and illogically laid out hardware, such as our too familiar remote controls.

You may have been disappointed if you had expected earth shattering revelations from the Summit, but what was revealed instead was a deeper overall understanding of the way ahead, together with the realisation that marketers and businesses are no longer in full control of their message.

In short, stop controlling, don’t get too hung up about all that massive data, use just what really matters to you, keep an ear to the ground, be human, enjoy what you are doing with genuine passion and commitment and respect other people’s opinions – digital communication strategies are perhaps stimulating a return to common sense.

Google Now

Google Now, well, not quite

Google fans like me will know that almost a year ago their new ‘intelligent personal assistant’ was launched, called ‘Google Now’.  It was pushed in the usual way by Google, who tried to hide as much real information as possible about the product while passing it by well-known IT reviewers who duly waxed lyrical over it with the aim of creating customer expectation and desire.  Of course, the inherent problem with this clever communication tactic is that it can backfire if the application isn’t really up to scratch, as all that latent desire can easily turn into frustration.

Google Now was pushed to all Android phone users with the latest Jelly Bean software update.  For those not in the know this is the most current version of the Android operating system.  Apparently, there are almost a billion Android devices in the world and about a third are running Jelly Bean, so we are talking hefty numbers here.  I shunned Apple partly as I can’t stand the smugness of most of its users and the cliquey perception that this company is trying to create through its overpriced products, so Google Now was duly pushed to my Android phone with its latest software update.

Naturally, I was looking forward to any ‘productivity tool’ that might have made my complicated life just a tiny bit easier.  Naturally too, I didn’t expect wonders, but just a modest degree of usefulness.  Instead, it turned out to be one of the most useless applications I probably ever opened on my smartphone (though perhaps not as useless as ChatON, but that’s another story…).

According to the sales pitch, Google Now should have been able to identify various strands of personal data such as calendar appointments, trips etc, to help me manage my daily activities by providing pertinent suggestions.  This strategy is in keeping with Google’s desire to push information to you, rather than you pulling it from the web, literally learning from you.  At least that’s the theory.  The practice, however, was a lot more disappointing as all I could ever see was two information cards, one for the local weather (duplicated on the home screen anyway, so of limited usefulness) and the other being my daily commute. That was it.  Appointments were not displayed, as Google Now can’t yet cope with multiple calendars (clearly it is the people in work, with multiple calendars, who would benefit most from an App like this?).

A quick look around some of the online forums revealed that I am not at all unique in my poor experience of this App, the usefulness of which appears to be highly limited, as well as influenced by the country in which you are based.  It’s more like some kind of prototype tool than a fully thought out App.

Despite some of its bad publicity you can barely think of a modern world without Google.  You ‘Google’ things and expect to find answers, you don’t ‘Apple’ them, and this alone demonstrates how much this company has influenced our lifestyle already.  But they are far from perfect, as some of the dodgy tax dealings also revealed, and they are not infallible, as the Google Now flop demonstrates.

But perhaps we should rejoice that not even a leviathan like Google can yet make a really ‘intelligent personal assistant’ – a testament that, for a little longer at least, machines haven’t quite caught up with our own intelligence.