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Is Creativity Dead?

December 12, 2013

One of the very first lessons I learned as a young copywriter working for an ad agency was that my best creative work would never see the light of day. An ad or commercial that was sure to get a strong response from consumers would not be produced over fears it was too provocative or for some other reason that ran contrary to going with the safest decision available. It's why after years of trying to get retailers to think about brand development, we almost always fell back on running that week's price ad.

Later in my career, I heard the lament that there were precious few merchants left in retailing. While at Progressive Grocer in the nineties, the "Merchandising Idea Book" program was built around the notion that stores had largely forgotten how to build the types of displays that drove business. Our job was to provide store managers with ideas on how to more creatively merchandise products while offering them the added incentive of some type of prize from manufacturers.

In recent years, I've noticed that when CPG executives talk about a new product, they call it "new innovation". That phrasing has always struck me as odd since the vast majority of new rollouts are simple line extensions with very little innovation apparent. A recent Wall Street Journal article, Is a Peanut Butter Pop-Tart an Innovation?, makes the same point. One of the oddest things while listening to earnings calls is to hear analysts parroting the "new innovation" term when asking CPG executives about their company's performance.

So, why aren't we more creative?

A recent article on Slate, makes the case that society and the groups that make it up are more comfortable with conformity than creativity.

Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley's business school, told Slate that most people are "satisfiers" and the end result is that the lowest common denominator often wins. Rarely is risk-taking and creativity supported in the workplace when it's happening. And when creativity prevails, it almost appears to happen by accident.

"We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect," Mr. Staw told Slate.

Discussion Questions:

Do businesses, perhaps unknowingly, encourage conformity over creativity? How has this affected retailing and related industries? Do you have a personal story to share on this topic?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do you agree or disagree that businesses often encourage conformity over creativity?


As someone who has been in eCommerce since 1994, I would agree "businesses...encourages conformity over creativity." It's why retail is in the precarious position its in today with online merchants like Amazon, eBay, etc. eroding traditional retailers' market position.

Understanding the concept of regression towards the mean is worth understanding here.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

Unfortunately, yes, business does encourage conformity because appealing to the widest and sometimes lowest common denominator is safe. One only needs to look at some of the commercials the BrainTrust panelists have been reviewing.

Like George, I spent many years in the advertising business as an Account Executive selling the creative work to clients who always wanted to take the safe approach, which did not make the creative teams happy. Most of the time I was able to sell the work which kept me on good terms with the creatives but man, it was not easy.

Is creativity dead? No, I don't think so. Take a look at the new Subaru spots (Painter) and the Cannon commercials (baby soccer players) and see that creativity is indeed alive, yet maybe not as well as it should be.

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Zel Bianco, President, founder and CEO, Interactive Edge

You've both raised and answered a very interesting question, George.

We have creativity, invention and innovation embedded in our DNA as humans. That 'gene' represents both a gift and a responsibility. (As the owner of a new and exhausting puppy...many animals have that same creativity gene.)

Our subconscious minds have been conditioned to subdue the creative impulse starting with preschool teachers who told us the sky isn't green and that we couldn't be Spider-Man. So the challenge we face is one of transforming a deeply conditioned mindset - and changing the mind is the greatest challenge in the universe.

The reason we fear creative that stretches and challenges is our desire to keep everyone happy. In a brilliant comment from Colin Powell, he says that "trying to keep everyone happy is the fastest road to mediocrity." Amen to that!

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

It's true - real creativity and innovation is discouraged in companies. I found this out as a new product manager in CPG companies, and later as an agency planner. The reason though is simple: incrementalism safeguards the assets of the company better than disruption. That's why disruptive innovation tends to happen where there is less at risk: start-ups.

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Liz Crawford, VP, Strategy & Insights, Match Drive

Here is an interesting article that's subject matter causes a lot of arguments in boardrooms in place of awareness and ingenuity. It is my observation that many company executives will create action plans that ensure only organization and self longevity. Risk is simply out of the question.

Investments and updates for a reliable test program in place to plan and create new and innovative product, schemes and/or process is many times viewed as a flagrant dissipation of what otherwise might be bonus bucks. Investment concerns saturated with limiting risk and inventiveness virtually guarantee the stagnation of what was once a great idea or plan. There is no more evidence of this than is seen in the content and formulation of a typical executive employment contract.

Sadly, change usually comes from the next generation of corporate upstarts. And these new players lay waste to generations of tradition with total disregard just like what Henry Ford did to the horse carriage and buggy whip industries and what Steve Jobs did to the typewriter and calculator businesses.


I wouldn't say there is no creativity anymore. I believe there is more than ever. Sure, there are examples of something less than creativity, however, there are some absolute home runs, too.

The challenge is that creativity and innovation comes with risks. The risk of failure, for one. Hence the more than 250k "new" items per year introduced around the world and the more than 75% failure rate in the first year. That costs companies money, so some play it safer and don't stretch innovation that far. Others do stretch it far out on the skinny branches, and one out of five times they win big enough to more than offset the cost of the failures.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

Creativity isn't dead, courage is.

Greg Mueth, VP, Account Planning & Shopper Marketing, GROUP360 Worldwide

Very important topic indeed! Creativity and innovation equate to changing the status quo in a significant way. Major innovations are rare, they require imagination, deep insights, and very often go against existing "common sense."

Sure there are 'small' innovations as in line extensions (confirming status quo) and 'big' innovations as in new product category (think teeth whiteners) and those more rare products that re-define how we live (think of iPod, iPhone, iPad) - not to mention the advances and discoveries we make in natural and life sciences.

But in business per se, creativity and innovation upset the existing paradigm and by definition that means the most creative and innovative ideas will never see light of day within the existing company structure (Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma comes to mind). That's why we have entrepreneurs striking out on their own which further activates a different set of skills that creative and innovative folks may not necessarily have but would have to acquire (organizational discipline, tenacity of execution, funding, etc.).

Change is a very hard thing to do, we are more comfortable with status quo and going "auto-pilot." In general, we have a bias to maintain equilibrium or at best make small incremental changes that simply restore equilibrium.

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Mohamed Amer, Vice President, Global Integrated Retail Unit, SAP

I think as organizations mature, like individuals, they settle into what's familiar and comfortable. It feels safer, even if it's really not. For individuals, it can be a challenge to continue to maintain our curiosity and creativity as we get older. For organizations, it's probably worse.

There's been a lot written about the life cycle of retailers. They evolve from being young, innovative and dynamic to being mature, cautious and sclerotic.

One of the great things about working with independent retailers, as I do, is sharing in the creative process with them. It is far easier for an independent to retain their vitality and creativity over time. Re-invention often is a function of fresh inspiration from the owner. Execution is far easier. It's fun to observe, facilitate and be a part of.

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Ted Hurlbut, Principal, Hurlbut & Associates

Liz's insightful contribution triggers another thought. As one who is steering several early-phase though highly disruptive initiatives, I've learned that the establishment has a very low and narrow tolerance for any kind of disruption. For all our claims of being "open to change" and having "open minds"...for the most part we really don't.

Especially with a disruptive technology I'm working on I've often been advised to water down or significantly understate what the technology is truly capable of doing. It's become obvious that while we can handle a +1 advance we can't handle a +1,000 one. What we are capable of scares the heck out of people. The result is the true innovators are forced back into the old baby-step/incremental change model. Innovators have zero patience with that fear and as a result, many exciting possibilities are abandoned. As I noted...changing minds is often futile work.

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

I'm not so sure I agree that businesses 'encourage' conformity so much as I think business models do not adapt well to the creatives.

My very good friend Lanny Vincent has written several books about this topic. The first is called "The Maverick Way." You see, Lanny is one of those people who works with manufactures to come up with new, innovative, patent-able products.

What he sees is that the creative, or maverick in his words, has a really hard time playing in the same sand box as the rest of the folks. These folks need someone who stands between them and the rest of the organization and who protects them. They must be able to try and fail then try, try again. And for a true maverick, that is in their blood.

So, this may be at a slightly different level than being creative in advertising or merchandising, but I honestly believe that the concept holds true. If more businesses recognized their mavericks, protected and encouraged them, there's no end to what could be in store.

Lee Kent, Brings Retail Executives Together to Meet.Learn.Profit, RetailConnections

Of course. Businesses are need to make money. They have to behave like ocean liners, which means gradual change and tried and true "new" product intros. This is what keeps business moving, and why so many companies take this approach.

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Kai Clarke, President, Kowa Optimed, Inc.

Yes, of course they do, but I don't know that this is new or different. The Fountainhead was written 70 years ago with this same theme of of conformity versus independence.

One thing that is much better in today's world is the ability to share creative ideas at extremely low cost. Social media allows creative ideas to get out in the world without the gatekeepers of the past. TED talks (which scratch my own personal itch to see more creative ideas beyond my own work domain) are plentiful and free online.

Sure, large CPGs have often been laggards on creativity. But even there it is probably easier to start a CPG company and get a new product out to market than ever before. Watch some episodes of Shark Tank... it will give you hope that this spirit is alive and well.

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Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President, Applied Predictive Technologies

Creativity is challenged at many levels within organizations. Businesses understand calculated risks, measure ROI and have difficulty with innovative concepts that don't fit the current business. It takes vision to develop/support disruptive ideas that change categories or an industry until they have ROI. Why is the failure rate of new products over 50% in the first year, even when launched by experienced brand marketers?

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Anne Bieler, Sr. Associate, Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions

I love Greg Mueth's comment.

The whole business case process drives a lot of conformity. It's much easier to create a defensible revenue and business case for something that has been done before than something that is new.

It is the courage and risk-taking entrepreneurialism, not the creativity that has been eroded.

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Matthew Keylock, Senior Vice President, New Business Development and Partnerships, dunnhumbyUSA

Creativity is the essence of what makes America great. We are so caught up in our businesses trying to bludgeon one another on price, creativity goes out the window.

I talk to a ton of store owners who try to compete with everybody in town to survive, they forget that the really creative businesses are constantly looking for ways to stand out, other than price, and that is what motivates me. I have a story, so here it goes....

When I graduated from college and took over the business in 1979, I needed to create a buzz for a huge meat sale. My older brother being a doctor, gave me an idea...Doctor O's Meat Clinic.

My meat wrapper was dressed in nurse scrubs, including stethoscope, and my butcher and I in doctor's jackets, plus scrubs for my assistant supervisors from our wholesaler.

The ad stated that we were "meat surgeons" who would expertly cut your "in bag" cuts of meat for free. The ad had several "in bag" hot deals, and large family packs of key items, along with some killer dairy, and grocery deals for a one-day sale.

All of us were prepared to work all day, and since it was the first weekend in December, that is exactly what happened. It was a record day with a 40% plus mix in meats, and a single-day record for sales and tonnage. We were tired, but created a buzz for Dr. O, and to this day, I have a painting of me on the front window from that sale. Remember, back in 1980 many stores were just getting into boxed meats, and we cranked up the ad to showcase what we can do.

Over 30 years later, it stands out as our most creative idea, and has kept the juice flowing ever since.

Yes times have changed, but thinking outside the box is crucial to survive in this business, as I have said many times before on this blog. I think the new thing for me is the food expos I attend, showcasing our newest Deli-Bakery products for the public to try.

The creative process in cooking is endless, and our employees are encouraged to try new foods, and desserts. No one person has all the ideas, but I need to make sure that whatever we create is duplicated each and every time we make a new batch, to keep them coming back.

Creative social media platforms are the new learning curve for us, and I enjoy the challenge of keeping our Facebook page current, and loaded with good pictures of great food. Thanks for reading this, and our FB page is Tony O's Supermarket & Catering if anyone wants to take a look. Enjoy the weekend!

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

Books are written by creatives, and big money is paid by many to listen to creatives speak, and yet books are put on the shelf, and people go home from seminars without learning a thing. Why are there so many non-creative solutions out there?

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Jerry Gelsomino, Principal, FutureBest

Greg Mueth nailed it: "Creativity isn't dead, courage is." Marketing author/guru Seth Godin writes extensively about "the resistance" and how it keeps us from creating great things, and how it takes a great deal of courage and bravery to overcome the resistance.

It's especially hard in larger organizations, where I feel there is a great desire for self-preservation, and being too creative can put one's livelihood at risk.

Organizations need to task their teams to be brave and we'll see more creative product introductions. In the meantime, we get what our organizations want: safe innovation that won't get anyone fired.

Scott Sanders, Director of CPG Analytics, Pivotstream

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