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