Creativity Should Not Be Handcuffed

HandcuffsWhen I worked at a large communications agency early in my career, I found it odd when heralded “creatives” were automatically assigned to generate ideas for client challenges. Conversely, I also thought it odd that some clients had a knee-jerk reaction to outsource so much creative thinking to an agency in the first place, when the client organization was filled with incredibly smart and creative people.

This atomization of creative thinking begs the question: Does creativity belong in agencies OR marketing organizations?

Last week I heard two diametric views on this question, at the advisory board meeting for the Wharton School’s Future of Advertising Program.

In one corner was Donny Deutsch, chairman of Deutsch Inc. His view was that the most creative people in advertising will almost always gravitate toward an agency, where they flourish thanks to a nurturing of their individuality and exposure to diverse, stimulating client assignments. Why would a creative person go anywhere else — let alone a rigid corporation? Admittedly, Deutsch underscored the advertising agency industry faces major challenges in recruiting top talent because of unattractive compensation standards.

In the other corner was William Lauder, executive chairman of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. According to Lauder, creativity is the syncing of imagination and the aspiration of a brand. Creativity can be singly driven, as with Steve Jobs, or with people behind the scenes. As an executive, his goal is to foster creativity and then get out of the way. Estée Lauder has a brand-centric culture where employees should be imaginative within their “lane,” and, according to Lauder, has achieved 90% of its success from internal creative minds.

Despite their conflicting convictions, these two execs actually never debated, or even met, that day. One happened to be the morning discussion leader, the other the afternoon discussion leader.

Whichever side you’re on, this very issue reflects the challenges of a manufacturing, industrial world. How do you get the most scale and quality output from your line functions: from full-blown converted employees, or from contracted agents?

But when it comes to creativity in advertising, maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Perhaps the ultimate question should be: How do you connect the best ideas and idea creators with the decision-making processes and business decision-makers? Businesses are nothing if they don’t have transformational ideas. And creative ideas for business’ sake are worthless unless they have a path to break out.

Where does creativity belong? It belongs everywhere and nowhere. Looking for creativity in a formal department or agency partner may be limiting. Instead, businesses should recognize and incentivize creative contributions, and institute systems to detect, harness and reward creative ideas from multiple sources wherever they may come from: internal or external, formal or informal.

The key is to break down the rigid institutional compartments that create distance between business decision-making and creative problem-solving.

This article also ran in MediaPost.



Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

Join the Conversation


  1. Some of the most successful organizations I have seen have competitions where they allow every member of the company to participate in creating new product lines. I feel creativity shouldn’t be handcuffed as well and everyone can play there part in developing the next best product or service. Interesting post!

    1. Key point: creativity is needed everywhere, not just in advertising media. It is needed in product, marketing, HR, culture, even accounting and finance (maybe not creative book-keeping, but creative problem-solving, for sure).

Leave a comment