In 2013, a French economist named Thomas Piketty published a simple formula that provided a rallying call for the dispossessed: r > g. Two simple variables and their relationship dictated inevitably increasing inequality in capitalist systems.
Today we find a similar imbalance inherent in modern marketing—a structural and pernicious inequality that makes every marketer’s life worse. It is a force that causes stress, frays professional relationships, and keeps us from our families with never-ending night and weekend work.
We call this imbalance the “Ironclad Law of Creative Misery,” and it is expressed thusly: D > L
Alternatively, if you want to sacrifice simplicity for clarity, you could express it as follows: DCreative > LCreative
Or in plain English, the demand for creative (DCreative) exceeds the labor for creative (LCreative).
Let’s consider the first half of the formula. What force makes demand for creative so high? The answer: technological progress.
CMOs don’t need any footnotes, statistics, or anecdotes to accept that technology has profoundly impacted marketing. Two trends in particular intersect to create a huge new demand for creative: channel proliferation and personalization.
Just 20 years ago, marketers could concentrate on a few channels: TV, print, radio, events, PR, and snail mail. Email marketing wasn’t even around, and you probably wouldn’t have known better than to click an email link for free Viagra—if Viagra had been invented. Today, if we start with Snapchat and Instagram and started counting the number of channels backward, how high would the count go?
And how many of those new channels require at least basic production adjustments—dimensions, resolution, formats—to a piece of creative? How many require copy edits for tone or fit?
Speaking of tone and fit, consider the problem of personalization. Technology allows us amazing tools to provide the right message to the right customer at the right time. If only we had the time to create enough messages!
Consider the problem mathematically. How would demand for creative vary based on the number of channels and personas a company is servicing?
To read this chart, consider a company that only has a single version of its message to distribute via a single channel. That company is in the bottom left of the chart—demanding just a small bit of creative. Now consider the company that has to tailor its message to 10 personas across 10 channels. That company is in the upper right of the chart—with 100 times as much demand for creative.
The real-world numbers are somewhat different, of course. Three to seven personas multiplied by 30 channels is a realistic challenge for a large company.
Regardless of the particular numbers, it’s clear the demand for creative is increasing at an accelerating pace. Creative directors and staff are all too familiar with the pain of this increased burden. But so far the problem has not penetrated the boardroom.
That takes us to the next part of our formula: LCreative
What is the force keeping creative labor out of balance with the demand? Profits.
No company can afford to scale head count endlessly. (Well, maybe Apple could, but unfortunately, it has already invested in a tremendous number of employees who wander around Apple stores not fixing our iPhones.)
While you could complain that outdated corporate budgeting processes lead to an underinvestment in marketing, it’s almost impossible to argue that there is a strong return on investment (ROI) for hiring an extra creative resource every time there’s a new Snapchat.
Even if the creative director could explain his Sisyphean workload to the CFO, the numbers just don’t add up. Companies benefit from each extra persona or channel they reach, but not always enough to justify additional staff.
That’s why it’s called the Ironclad Law of Creative Misery. Creative teams will always be pushed to the breaking point and beyond.
But there is a solution: Increase productivity.
In economic terms, productivity means the output per unit labor. One of the primary determinants of productivity is technology—which is econ-babble for a simple message: Technology got us into this mess; technology can get us out of it.
There is a set of underused technologies that increases the productivity of our creative teams. Digital asset management (DAM) is the primary software category—in particular, those DAMs that streamline work-in-progress processes rather than those that simply serve as repositories for finished assets. There are also project management tools designed for creative teams that can bring clarity and organization to an often manual and chaotic process. Some software companies have even given up on the admittedly inadequate traditional labels and tried to pioneer new categories like creative operations management (COM).
Ultimately, if these technologies are implemented intelligently, they will also benefit other key determinants of productivity, such as worker skill. More streamlined business processes means a lowered learning curve for new hires and more time on actual creativity for everyone. Since most creatives don’t enjoy project management or production work, successful adoption of these technologies can increase employee engagement—another driver of productivity. These benefits are more than theoretical: Companies that have implemented a DAM system have increased revenue by an average of 24% while reducing content creation costs by 28%, according to an IDC report (sponsored by Adobe, CMO.com’s parent company).
And to be clear, this is not a call for more marketing technology. Companies have invested billions in marketing technology and will continue to invest billions more. This is a call for creative technology.
Consider your own organization. How much technology investment has been made into ways to distribute your messages? To match your messages to your customers? To measure the impact of your messages?
And how much technology investment has been made to assist in the creation of those messages?
So let this be a clarion call for creatives. A manifesto for marketers. A crib sheet for CMOs in their next boardroom battle for budget.
D is > than L. D will continue to be > than L.
But maybe creativity doesn’t have to be miserable.
The solution is not to continue beating our creatives until their morale improves. The solution is to invest in technology. To invest in productivity. To invest in our future.