The Top 5 Secrets of Great Creative Work

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To promote its AI horror thriller, Morgan, film studio 20th Century Fox commissioned technology platform IBM Watson to analyze the movie and generate a trailer.

It’s a clever marketing move given the content, but it also begs some intriguing questions about the long-term viability of human creativity and whether, as John Smith, IBM Fellow of Machine Vision at IBM Research, noted in a video about the project, computers will eventually be able to create art.

On a somewhat fortuitous note, marketing intelligence resource Contagious and interactive agency Razorfish recently set out to see if they could boil great creative work down to an algorithm. And human movie trailer creators, as well as the larger creative community, will likely be happy to hear the hypothesis of the resulting study was that superior creative performance comes down to people – and, specifically, how people work.

Razorfish and Contagious analyzed 15 years of entries and awards from The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to reveal the patterns behind what they called the world’s top creative performers. This analysis included “billions of data points from the Cannes Lions archive,” including more than 403,000 submissions and 294 million words with focus on win rates as the primary measure of creative performance. And, according to the study, the overall probability of winning a Lion is just 4%.

“What we learned was it is not necessarily reducible to an algorithm, which was a relief to those in creative,” said Will Sansom, director of strategic and creative consultancy Contagious Insider. “What we did find is there are specific ways of working and specific behaviors and organization [that yield great creative work]…the closing gambit was there is no code for creativity, but there’s a code of conduct for creativity.”

Here’s what that code includes:

1. Good ideas trump big budgets.

The study found no correlation between the highest media spenders and the likelihood of winning.

“There is no correlation between loads of money and great creativity,” Sansom said. “Our main takeaway was essentially that creativity isn’t the sole preserve of big budgets at big agencies in big countries. It’s a good rallying cry…it’s achievable by anyone.”

2. Winning content is location agnostic.

In addition, the study found the wealthiest countries had no measurable advantage in the ability to deliver award-winning work.

When the top ten countries are analyzed in terms of win rate, the study found only three were in the top ten for GDP per capita – and, what’s more, it said 70% of the most creative countries were those with lower levels of wealth.

In fact, per the study, the top three countries with highest win rates that have entered a handful of times are Kosovo, Macedonia and Kuwait, and the top three countries with highest win rates that have entered thousands of times are New Zealand, Argentina and France.

3. Large, diverse teams are important.

The study also revealed large, collaborative, multi-disciplinary teams tend to outperform smaller ones.

To wit: Winning entries had +26% more people credited than non-winning entries, per the findings.

“This suggests the importance and role of collaboration in creative performance,” the study said. “It could also support a broader point about culture, which is that regardless of how many people worked on a campaign, organizations that credit, champion and value their teams are more successful.”

In addition, when comparing winning entries, the study found significantly higher levels of involvement from several supporting disciplines, including production, planning, technology, PR and strategy.

The rate of representation from these disciplines was up to 50 percent higher in winning entries.

“We thought this was indicative of what’s happening with a modern integrated campaign having lots of moving parts and so big, diverse teams [are] more effective,” Sansom said.

The study also found submissions that had a larger share of credited staff — below director level — were more successful.

“This is about crediting talent in the agency that might not be at the senior level, but does great work,” Sansom added.

And that means agencies should create environments where people are encouraged to grow their skills and give staff autonomy and discretion over their assignments and resources.

4. Long-term brand/agency relationships matter.

Contagious and Razorfish found the length of client relationships with agencies is also important, with long-enduring relationships yielding a win rate twice that of the average.

A study of the first few years reveals a short-term climb, followed by a drop in the number of submissions versus win rates, which the study said suggests they are no longer producing winning work. But the study also found creative performance peaks at years two and three, which it said is logical given the time required for an agency to learn a client’s business and to get a sense of its challenges and how to get brave work signed off by the right people.

Thereafter, the study said win rates fall after year three in joint client-agency submissions. At the same time, the study also found client-agency partnerships not only perform better after the ten-year mark, they perform higher throughout the entire duration of the partnership – and those client-agency relationships that last past the ten-year mark have a win rate that is twice that of the average.

“There’s a huge spike and then it drops off the cliff – is the honeymoon over, do you get complacent, do you take the best people off the account?” Sansom asked. “What’s really interesting is it suggests that really productive creative relationships require an investment of time…we’re in a real pitch culture right now – [clients] get scared and think they have to switch things up, but this suggests the opposite to do great creative work.”

And that’s in large part because trust is a vital ingredient in great creative, which can only result from time.

“In our industry, there’s a tradition of either doing great work or not and, if not, you get a new agency in, and actually it can be better to push the agency to reinvent…and…produce really amazing work that pushes both sides to get back to their winning ways,” he added.

5. Specialty agencies offer advantages.

Further, Sansom noted the study found entries that had a higher number of agencies credited had higher win rates than those with just one agency credited.

“There’s a big debate at the moment around clients – everything is so complicated, [so should you use] one big full-service agency or the right combination of agencies who can bring different skillsets? And it is always a danger of oversimplification, but this suggests a combination is the right way to create great work.”

Indeed, the study said one of its strongest observations was that modern creativity demands collaboration – particularly as we enter a connected economy where brand experiences depend on business strategists, artists, technologists and storytellers.

“The main point is creativity is accessible to anyone. It’s about investing in meaningful long-term relationships…[which is] something achievable by more junior people [and] bigger, more diverse teams and [by] collaborating. Those are really positive things – and something anyone can do,” Sansom said. “If this is not a rallying cry for creativity at a time when we are slightly unsure about the future, [I don’t know what is]. It’s a really nice thing…it bodes well for the future of what we all do.”

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