The year ahead for ... creativity

Ewan Paterson wonders whether the economic backdrop will play a major role in ensuring that 2009 is a vintage year for creative ideas.

Do we have creative years and non-creative years? One's gut instinct would say yes. And evidence would support this. Take 1504, for example. Leonardo Da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa, while Michelangelo's David was taking shape.

And in the motion picture world there was 1974, the year of The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny and Towering Inferno.

Look up 1639 in any history of art book and you'll find nothing better than Rubens' The Three Graces. Good, but third division at best relative to the masterpieces of 1504. And in cinema, 2007 was the equivalent of art's 1639.

In our humble world of advertising, the same is true. 2005 gave us the interactively brilliant, cricket-watching friend "The Boony" from Australia for Victoria Beer, the iPod Nano, Sony "balls", the Harvey Nichols sale campaign featuring calendar pages and Sure deodorant's "stunt city". While there's also been a fair few years when I haven't bothered to keep the D&AD Annual.

So what are the factors at play? What it is it that gives rise to a year of great creativity? Well, the economic backdrop plays a role.

In the Renaissance Art example, affluent times certainly helped produce great works of art as the prosperous families passed on their wealth in the form of sponsorship for the artists of the day. And the creatively strong year, for us advertisers, of 2005 was clearly during a period of economic prosperity.

But as 2009 is likely to be a year when the marketing budget's purse strings get tightened further, should we anticipate a poor year for ideas?

Lunar BBDO's agency blog recently had an interesting article purporting that bad times financially can often be good times creatively. It cited 1994 as being a bumper year for creative excellence. The John Smith's penguins campaign, Levi's "creek", SPDCJ's Nike posters and The Economist "shredder" were the first four in a long list of "I'd-give-my-right-arm-to-have-done-that" work. 1994 being a year when the FTSE 100 was way lower than it is today.

The truth is that good times can make people feel confident and money itself can allow great ideas to bloom. Conversely, bad times can drive the brave to realise that now is the time to make your products more competitive - and if your product is communication then that means stronger creativity.

So the bleak financial outlook for 2009 may not mean a bleak creative year. Much depends on how many brave marketing and ad agency people there are out there.

What gives me greater hope for creativity in 2009 is the continuing change in how consumers take in our communications. Nothing has helped our ads more than the consumer's ability to turn them off. Sky+ has done us all a huge favour. No longer can the big-spending clients be satisfied with bland creative, safe in the knowledge that they can hammer home the message with 900 TVRs.

Our other friend has been the web and the rise of self-made programming - which is what YouTube really is. Suddenly television, and our commercials, have competition from people's own, self-created entertainment. A bit like when punk came along and the music industry was challenged by what people could create in their own garage. As a result, the bar on what the world considers entertaining has been raised.

Few ad industry creations, Cadbury's "gorilla" being the best of the few, attract the attention that the best web creations do. The changing way we receive, interact and create our own entertainment means more than ever creativity is king. Let it play a minor role at your peril.

Our communication has to be so entertaining that people won't turn it off. Or even better, people want to hunt it out.

Or even, even better, people want to be part of it. Engagement is good. Participation is better. The former does what it says; it engages the consumer in your message. While the latter, involves your consumer in your product. A bit like the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman getting you to demonstrate the benefits of his product to yourself.

Look at how Walkers crisps got the British public to participate in its "Do us a flavour" idea. It literally asked the public to be its new product-development department. The goal of creating a new flavour for the country's favourite crisp maker, and the result being seen in every corner shop and supermarket, was a great enticement.

Then on top of that, the creator of the winning flavour got £50,000 plus 1 per cent of all royalties. Yes 1 per cent of all royalties. This wasn't a half-baked idea. What made "Do us a flavour" a huge success with more than a million consumers becoming part of the Walkers brand was that it was a brilliant idea done properly.

As we start 2009, we should also take the lead and inspiration from the biggest thing in 2008 - the American election. Barack Obama's election campaign was full of opportunities for the electorate to get involved, give their views and generally join in. The huge success of his election campaign is proof of the increasing use and power of participation in marketing.

And talking of inspiration, what comes out of the heads of our creatives tends to be inspired by what goes in. The rise of our friend the web has influenced the work coming out of agencies. We've seen more and more work that's an amazing bit of film with a line at the end. And a decline in scripted, dialogue-based work. This may continue in 2009.

But as creativity tends to be cyclic, with trends returning after a period of being out of favour, I would hope to see a resurgence in brilliantly written ideas. And my wager would be that the online medium could be the home for this.

Wouldn't it be fantastic and refreshing if the piece of creativity we celebrate most in 2009 is a digitally led idea that involves the written word and is done in a way that entices people to participate and become part of the brand?

Whatever creativity 2009 does throw up, the success stories will be ideas that engage and entice participation from the consumer.

So I head into 2009 hopeful of being inspired by engaging films of the standard of "gorilla" and campaigns that use the power of participation as Walkers "Do us a flavour" and the Democratic Party's presidential election campaign did.

For the brave, adventurous and innovative, this year could be a great year for creativity.

- Ewan Paterson is the executive creative director at CHI & Partners.