This piece was created in response to a question from AdNews.com.au and has been published in part on that website.
It's not really a question of whether art or commerce is ‘winning’ – this was and has always been a false dichotomy.
Creative agencies especially have often been characterised as trapped in an endless internal tug-of-war between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ – clients and suits pulling endlessly in one direction and creatives in another, with incentives horribly misaligned (awards vs sales; craft vs ROI). But this is clearly nonsense.
Look outside of the world of advertising and creativity is almost always commercial. Whole books have been written about Walt Disney’s creativity, but the business that bears his name is inherently commercial. Fine artists have always used ateliers, where assistants, students, craftsmen churn out pieces aligned to the master’s creative vision – maximising commercial value (and revenue). Kanye West (discredited though he is) turned his undoubted creative talent into a multi-million dollar empire that went way beyond music.
And on the other hand, the best marketers (and internally at agencies the best suits and planners) are the ones that use creativity to solve business problems – not just through comms, but through creative manipulation of product, price, place AND promotion to drive commercial results.
Anyway. All that said, the relationship between commerce and creative IS constantly changing.
Shrinking budgets (commercial) are driving us to tap into culture to spread ideas organically – rather than exclusively via paid media – visible in the rise of brand collabs, meme culture and product placements, all fuelled by the countless hours people spend streaming TikTok (creative).
The rise of AI and our fascination with Midjourney and Chat GPT is provoking a slightly hysterical conversation around ‘the machines taking our jobs’ – and a slew of (slightly nervous and needlessly defensive) LinkedIn posts negatively comparing AI’s frankly-quite-impressive-for-a-technology-in-its-infancy attempts to create ads with those created by the best humans in the business. But (again, think about those shrinking budgets!) it must be very tempting for clients to at least entertain the idea of ditching agencies for the machines – if not now, then maybe in the future – and further dumbing down creative in response to commercial pressure.
Judging by what wins at Cannes, creativity is all about trying to change the world, whilst the commercial reality (at least as many commentators would have it) is for us to just STFU with the purpose crap and get on with the grubby business of selling stuff.
At the same time, organisations like Comms Declare and Clean Creatives are putting pressure on agencies to do the right thing and ditch their (lucrative commercially) fossil fuel clients through initiatives like the F-List. The idea of turning away revenue was unthinkable only a decade ago, but is now more and more prevalent. And whilst we torture ourselves over whether to ditch the polluters, as an industry we continue to grapple with the role of purpose in marketing: Judging by what wins at Cannes, creativity is all about trying to change the world, whilst the commercial reality (at least as many commentators would have it) is for us to just STFU with the purpose crap and get on with the grubby business of selling stuff.
Marketing doesn’t have to be purpose-led OR commercially effective: it’s possible for brands to find a way to creatively elevate responsible behaviour AND make it pay
As usual, these either/or questions hide a much more nuanced reality:
Ditching fossil fuel clients might mean losing revenue, but there is a sound commercial rationale for doing so – the reputational damage of working with these polluters is increasingly likely to impact on an agency’s ability to win new clients and attract the best talent.
Marketing doesn’t have to be purpose-led OR commercially effective – it’s possible for brands to find a way to creatively elevate responsible behaviour AND make it pay.
It’s unlikely that the machines will take over – rather we’ll find ways to use them alongside humans to make our work faster and better, helping drive better creative AND commercial outcomes.
And the most creatively interesting and commercially successful campaigns aren't paid OR earned – they tend to combine paid AND earned media tactics, the two bumping and bouncing off each other to embed brands far more deeply in culture and drive far greater effects than those that use exclusively one or the other.
So, it’s not a question of whether creative or commerce is winning: it’s a question of how we continue to use creativity to drive commercial results, and use changing commercial imperatives to drive creative thinking. It's all rather un-exciting, from a headline-grabbing viewpoint. But tremendously exciting for the future of the industry.
Image sources: Encyclopædia Britannica