Is your agency in the business of creativity or just going through the motions?

I recently read a quote from John Cleese that said, “creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.” This of course flies right in the face of how many of us “creatives” view what we do for a living. Seriously, if creativity isn’t a talent, then that would mean everyone could do it. And, if everyone could do it, why do we constantly have to explain what it is we do to our relatives, in-laws and the people we meet at neighborhood cook outs? How dare he – John Cleese – one of the most fantastically creative talents in the history of comedy.

But would he have been recognized as such if he hadn’t been part of the Monty Python team? Would they have been so amazingly successful had they not recognized each other’s strengths and abilities and figured out a way to channel them towards one common goal?

Clearly, he thinks not.

Before I took my current job I was approached by a number of agencies that were looking “to do great creative.” The thought being that if you simply hire someone with high standards to run and build the creative department, you are all good. I see this line of thinking in so many places these days and it feels like the great, unacknowledged flaw of countless agencies.

As Mr. Cleese so eloquently put it, if your entire organization isn’t focused on creativity, you’ll never achieve it – and certainly not with any sort of consistency or longevity. From the top down, left, right and sideways, there has to be a clear understanding of what everyone’s hard work is in service to. Planning, media, account service, finance…they can all have a hand in making creative great and come to life. Or not.

To me, this is the fundamental reason so many shops are wannabes and so few are the real deal. It’s hard work. Really hard. The difference in effort between an idea that’s good enough and one that is great is the same as that of a half marathon and a full marathon. It’s not double. It’s exponential. The number of touch-points internally that can derail or neuter a great idea are vast. Great ideas are utterly fragile and need to be protected by everyone, every step of the way. It’s only when they make it out the door that they become powerful.

So is all the heartburn to achieve a higher level of creativity worth it? Why would an agency subject its entire organization to the reorganizing, the aligning, the conflict? Is this simply about pride or passion?

Actually, it is about survival.

Creativity is the only thing standing between your agency and commoditization, which is a big fancy word for losing business because someone was the same but cheaper than you. Your company’s ability to solve problems creatively (via strategy, media, business, visuals, whatever) is your single biggest differentiator. Lose that, and you might as well turn the lights out.

Ironically, creativity is not only the great differentiator; it is also the great equalizer. A great idea can come from agencies big and small alike. Your ability to deliver them consistently, however, allows you to compete against much larger competition. It’s the ace up your sleeve. Your slingshot. Your unfair advantage.

To benefit, management needs to see it, feel it and believe it. Then they need to do whatever is necessary to get everybody (not just creatives) organized behind it. Find and hire the believers. Fire the doubters.

Only then can you really get down to business.