When did we all get so creative?

Gordon Comstock, a creative reviewing creativity in Creative
Review, examines the overuse of the C word in advertising

I get drowsy after lunch. It’s a design flaw. Sprites dance in my eyes and my head lolls over my keyboard. Coffee doesn’t fix it, in fact the only thing that does is a seven-minute nap. “Go sleep,” says my boss, “you’re a creative.”

This is just one typical usage of the word that is my job title. Here it also refers to a mode of behaviour, usually childish, but unrelated to the job per se. It is also the name of the department I work in, the adjective that supposedly describes my work, and sometimes the noun used for the work itself. The phrase ‘the client doesn’t like the creative’ can be parsed as either a personal slight, or an unconstructive piece of criticism. You don’t have to be creative to be a creative, and drawing a Venn diagram to illustrate the crossover in some public area of your agency is a fun way to lose friends.

In fact, it’s not even the best description of what we do. Examine what linguists call the metaphorical domain used to talk about our work and you’ll see that it leaves out the most important bit. We ‘work on’ a ‘brief’ in order to ‘solve it’, ‘crack it’ or ‘nail it’. If these words have been chosen based on how our job feels, evidently it feels more like problem solving than exuberant creation.

Of course, problem solving may involve creativity, but it doesn’t follow that creativity necessarily solves a problem. If you’d asked Proust how he felt about À la recherche du temps perdu I strongly suspect he wouldn’t have said “oui, oui, I really kicked that one into the back of the net”.

So if it doesn’t quite fit what has caused its proliferation? Why aren’t we all working in the Solutions Department? And why is the International Advertising Festival in Cannes this year becoming the International Festival of Creativity?

Evidently there is a deliberate obfuscation going on. ‘Creativity’ forecloses on the need for justification. According to the Bible, God created the Earth without any clear idea what it was for, and yet he knew that it was good. Agencies have been using the same non-reasoning ever since to explain branding campaigns. Creativity for its own sake, rather than to the purpose, frees us from the need to always be selling.

But it also exposes us to abuse. What we’re really involved in, much of the time, becomes an expensive form of corporate entertainment. Sadistic clients who like to make the art kids dance for them, just as children they might have enjoyed making them play piggy-in-the-middle for their violin cases.

But it’s worth it for the industry. Look around your workplace and you’ll notice that mere advertising doesn’t answer the question of what the hell all those people are doing.

To create, according to Johnson’s dictionary, is to make something from nothing. Building a multi-billion pound industry on a practice whose effectiveness remains totally unproven has to be one of the best examples in the long history of futile human endeavour.

Just thinking about it makes me feel like a lie down. But that could be the baked potato.

‘Gordon Comstock’ is a creative at a London agency. He blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com

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