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Conference Coverage: Marketing - Creativity—How Can I Get Some?

Creativity is the lifeblood of innovation and marketing, but where does it come from and how should a company nurture this elusive trait? How does one explore creativity on the job—and use it to one's advantage?

Inventive, imaginative people are fun, cool, and can be one of a company's most valued assets, agreed panelists at the HBS Marketing Conference on April 9. But first things first: Know the customer, take care of retailers, and cover the fundamentals. Philip Evans (HBS MBA '78), a senior vice president at the Boston Consulting Group, moderated the discussion, opening with a simple question: How do you create creativity?

Creativity needs to be in the DNA of a company.
—Barney Waters, PUMA

"Creativity needs to be in the DNA of a company," said Barney Waters, vice president of marketing for PUMA North America. "At PUMA, it helps that our current chairman came from marketing and was named to the position at age thirty. The people who are running the place believe in creativity."

Kevin Moehlenkamp, EVP, Executive Creative Director at Hill, Holliday in Boston, was blunt in describing what it takes to foster creativity: "Balls. Having the courage to stand behind creative ideas. In our firm, the difference between being noticed and not being noticed is going out there with an idea that nobody feels comfortable with initially and being able to educate your clients to the point where they feel it's the right thing to do."

The hardest thing for creatives to do is to get an idea through to people who don't understand its potential.
—Kevin Moehlenkamp, Hill, Holliday

Saddle up
Be a cowboy, advised Bill Nielsen of Microsoft's Xbox—but don't get so caught up in the persona that you fail to take care of the marketing basics. It's possible to be wildly creative and walk off with an armload of awards, but that won't help your company if you've ignored its fundamental needs.

What is a manager's role in all this? Evans wondered. If creativity should be part of a company's culture, how do managers go about setting the tone for it?

"The hardest thing for creatives to do is to get an idea through to people who don't understand its potential," said Moehlenkamp. "My job is to try to get upstream with the client and let them know that we have their business at heart—not just selling the next great idea. I call it setting the table."

"Most of my time is spent managing up," agreed Nielsen, "convincing others that we do have a strategy and that what we're doing makes sense." Nielsen said that he also allocates a certain percentage of his budget to trying new things. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't matter—that money was already set aside with the understanding that not all new projects will succeed.

Creative ideas can seem small at first, so persistence is important when convincing others of their worth, said Shripriya Mahesh (HBS MBA '97), vice president of product marketing and platform at eBay. "You will get a lot of nos," she said. "As a manager, helping your team get in front of the right people on a consistent basis is important."

Outsourcing creativity
While creative work can be outsourced, it's still vital that someone owns the problem internally, panelists agreed. "You have to bring in external people for a fresh perspective," said Waters, noting that they've asked Philippe Starck to work on designs for PUMA.

"We outsource everything," said Nielsen, adding that he changes creative agencies frequently. "We also listen to everyone who calls us. Some of the best things we've attached ourselves to have come from a blind phone call." Thanks to one caller, Xbox now sponsors NOPI Nationals, an annual drag racing competition and car show in Atlanta with a broad multiethnic appeal and an expected attendance this year of 90,000 spectators.

EBay gets some of its best innovations from simply paying attention to what its users are doing, said Mahesh. For example, eBay's hugely successful motors business grew out of one employee simply noticing that there was a Ferrari for sale on the site. "We innovate based on what our users are doing," she said.

When all is said and done, creativity is not an end in itself, said Moehlenkamp—being wild and crazy isn't enough. "I make my creatives go back and understand why it is that something works so that they can explain it to clients. It's not a self-serving process."

"Be a rock star at your job," Mahesh advised students in the audience. "Build credibility. Prove yourself. That will give you more leeway to work out of the box."

"Make creativity part of your repertoire," added Moehlenkamp. "It's not a luxury, it's a necessity. You have to live that and believe in that."

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor at the HBS Alumni Bulletin.