Creativity, not content, is king

Creativity, not content, is king

If you’ve attended any marketing conference over the last few years, you would likely have seen plenty of talk about tools and process and less about genuine creativity.

Sure, some extremely creative and ground breaking case studies would be shown. But too often they are presented to illustrate a series of mechanical tasks. “Brand X drove a 20% increase in sales with this innovative Facebook campaign from the best creative minds in the business. So here’s how you build a Facebook brand page…”

No, no and thrice no. And it’s not just conferences. So many blogs, books and more attempt to simplify complex and sometimes unique content marketing scenarios into “Ten Top Tips to Tripling Twitter Traffic”.

These have their place, but I think the discussion has been dominated with attempts to simplify marketing to a series of hints, tricks and tips “we can all do at home, folks”.

Science or art

When presenting these case studies there’s very little, if any, talk about the creative process that comes up with the ideas and a ton of info about the mechanics, the channels used and metrics gained.

It’s not surprising so many people think sending something viral is a simple and mechanical process. The discussion reduced it to one by forgetting everything that makes the content special in the first place. And it’s that special sauce that causes something to go viral, not some switch inside YouTube.

‘Content is King’ may be one of the most over used phrases in marketing history. But it is too regularly co-opted into arguing for quantity and scale than it is about quality. It is used to justify the reduction of content to a production line of generic blog posts and landing pages driven by keyword research, automated or mass produced for chump change in the hope sheer volume and persistence will outweigh the blandness of it all.

Creativity reduced to a science, not art. Content reduced to tasks, not ideas.

Not that the tools aren’t important. Of course they are. But it’s like presenting a case study on the novels of George Orwell to a conference of budding writers by discussing whether he used notepads or a typewriter to write Animal Farm. And then pointing to his book sales as evidence that typewriters are the way to go, before launching into a pitch for the Acme Typewriter company, “Come see our stand in the main exhibition hall”.

OK, maybe it’s not quite that bad. But the last few years have definitely seen far too much focus on the technology; the code, the meta tags, keyword density, widgets, bots, black hat, white hat and more in between. Everything presented as accessible to all, a box of tricks guaranteed to rain fortune down on your business.

Clicks are people too!

It is as if the arrival of internet marketing brought with it a contagious amnesia, causing many to forget that clicks are people too, that success or failure lives in the nuances between the numbers. Just as picking up the phone doesn’t make someone a communications genius, the tools are nothing without creative thought and genuine insight.

It’s not hard to see how this amnesia came about. The pioneers of online marketing were developers, not marketers. They built the tools and showed the rest of us how to use them. Therefore, the concepts underpinning online marketing were reduced to a language of zeroes and ones. I’m not blaming them; that’s what they do and do it well.

Customers were no longer people but numbers on a spread sheet, captured by a tracking code and stripped of all individuality except for whatever demographic information was deemed relevant in a shopping cart form.

In the last few years, marketers began to reclaim the customer. Now there’s more talk of ‘content marketing’, recognising the importance of message over channel. There’s less talk of clicks and more talk of people; with individual motivations, goals and behaviours. Less talk of hits on a page and more talk of what’s on that page.

Many businesses have a long way to go. Some are already there and have been for a while. Others may never ditch their obsessions with production line neuromancy, looking for push-button solutions. These last will continue to add to the graveyard of sub par corporate blogs, abandoned forums, ignored Twitter streams and unliked Facebook pages. Some of those businesses will die, wondering why the mechanics of online marketing failed them while writing it all off as an over-hyped fad.

The last decade belonged to the tactics of technology: the tools, the channels, the code. The next decade belongs to creative approaches to content strategy; what we actually say, why and how we say it.

And technology better get used to holding the door open.


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I think one of the motivations for production line neuromancy (what a great description!) is management’s obsession with metrics. They want to measure the success or failure of every thing without considering it’s not each part, but the whole that’s the most valuable.

    To use your Animal Farm analogy, no one – not even the harshest critic – would slam Orwell because page 158 didn’t get the masses chatting. If paragraph two and three didn’t set the world on fire, readers know it’s because it’s necessary background for the rest of the story. And yet, many content marketers are faced with this sort of scrutiny.

    Often budget holders don’t give marketers the time or space needed to really be creative. I’ve definitely had projects stymied because the early results were less than wonderful. Anyone and everyone who has written a blog will have experienced this. While managers often get excited about the idea of content marketing and how a creative approach will win, they also quickly forget the cautionary warnings that success is not immediate.

    This is a really good post and a nice reminder we all need to be more focused on the creative side of marketing and not the measuring side. If we get the creative part right, the metrics take care of themselves.

    • Love the extension of my Orwell analogy. And yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about how ROI is only worth calculating across an integrated strategy and not each individual element. Not to say each element shouldn’t be assessed for how well it does the task it is given in that strategy, but ROI is something else entirely,

      More on that topic later!