Expert Commentary:
The Strategy


Why is it So Hard to Sell in Creativity?

Lucy Aitken
Managing Editor – Case Studies, WARC

WARC is the global authority on marketing effectiveness, enabling marketers to make decisions through evidence-based insight and inspiration.

Creativity is big business

So why is creativity so hard to sell in a marketing context?


Anyone who follows the research – as we at WARC do – will have seen study after study show the power of creativity in advertising. A landmark study from Data2Decisions found that creativity was the second biggest driver of advertising profitability, and the top driver that advertisers could actually control (the biggest influence being the size of the brand and the market it is in).


And why is that? Because creativity can get attention. It can get people talking and create fame. It can drive emotional response, build memory structures and create what has been termed ‘mental availability’. These are some of the fundamentals of building a brand that can command a price premium.

But creativity has not been a priority for many brands over the past decade. Big data, ad tech, martech, UX, CX – the marketing world has been distracted by whole new disciplines and opportunities. Creativity – and the case for investment in it – has arguably taken a back seat.


Perhaps in 2020 we’re seeing a change of emphasis. In WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit 2020 survey, 52% of the clients and agency executives we polled agreed that marketers had over-invested in tech at the expense of creativity. Just 24% disagreed.


That backs up research by Forrester in 2019 which suggested the marketing industry needed to move $19 billion out of technology and into creativity to spark growth.


One of the reasons for this shift was articulated by Brent Smart, CMO of Australian insurance group IAG, last year. Tech, he told a conference, was no longer a differentiator. When everyone is using the same group of CX and martech platforms, he said, the best way to stand out is to be creative.

So, can we expect a new era of creativity? Not necessarily. Several challenges remain:

1. Applying the ‘right’ creativity

We’re starting to have a much better idea of what creativity needs to deliver if it is to drive growth. Fundamentally, creativity needs to be in market long enough to have an impact. Studies suggest the timeframe is about six months. But a shift toward short-term strategies has, according to researchers like Peter Field, led to a rise of ‘disposable creativity’ not in market long enough to really work.


Second, marketers need to plan for recognition – in other words, if you assume you will only gain a small degree of attention, how can you maximise the chances of a consumer associating an ad with your brand?


Have we forgotten concepts such as ‘distinctive brand assets’ (recognisable signs, symbols or motifs) or ‘fluent devices’ (recognisable characters, storylines, constructs)? Research group System 1, which coined the term ‘fluent device’, argues that this type of advertising is in decline.

2. Applying creativity to all marketing, not just advertising

Burger King has arguably pioneered a new model. Its series of highly creative PR stunts have shown how creativity can deliver new experiences (think ‘Whopper Detour’), new products (think ‘McWhopper’) or find new media opportunities (think ‘Google Home of the Whopper’).


It’s undoubtedly eye-catching, and according to Burger King it’s driving growth. Not everyone agrees this is the best approach – the big question is whether there is enough consistency between them to meet the ‘long-term creativity’. Watch this debate in 2020, as it’s key to the future of commercial creativity.

3. Turning creativity into the language of finance

As effectiveness expert Les Binet recently told WARC: “We have to help CFOs to understand that some marketing activity gives you an immediate short-term delivery of sales, while other activity increases the ability to sell through all channels and increases the long-term flow of money into the company. Once you reframe it in that language, then I think you can start to have a grown-up conversation.”