On "Creative" as a Noun
Want to be inclusive? Then let's keep "creative" as an adjective, please?
TL;DR: The use of the term “creative” as a personal noun discounts a lot of the arguably more creative work that goes on at companies and agencies, particularly in corporate marketing and communications.
Several years ago, I was a panelist during one of those “visit the agencies” field trips that marketing, PR, and communications departments at colleges often undertake. Such trips work out well for all parties, generally: the students get a real-world (if somewhat sanitized) sense of the working environment, the agencies get a recruiting pipeline, and the professors distinguish themselves by demonstrating their ability to connect students to industry.
I was usually brought into this kind of thing because 1) I’m pretty academic by temperament so I tend to get along with profs, 2) I was in the so-hot-right-now Digital practice, and 3) I tend to put on a pretty good performance in such environments anyway. So, HR kept inviting me back.
This time around, there were five of us up in the front of the conference room, facing about twenty students. As this was the main lobby conference room, about two-thirds of the walls were glass. I felt observed.
“And now, you can see the flacks in their natural habitat,” I heard the voice of Marlin Perkins say in some cobwebbed corner of my hippocampus. “If you’re silent, you can hear their haunting mating call. ‘Billable hourrrrrs! Billable hourrrrrrs!’”
About a half-hour in, one of the students asked how and why we chose our various subspecialties within our trade. The representative from the consumer practice was only too eager to pipe up.
“Well, you see. I chose consumer because, you know, I really couldn’t see myself as, like, in corporate. You see, I’m… a creative.”
What this newly minted account supervisor didn’t know, and probably could not have known, is that one should not express such reason-challenged sentiments next to the great Gary Dunlap.
Gary was a gentle-yet-quietly-powerful figure within the agency’s crisis practice. Patient, yet quick-witted. Warm and thoughtful yet charmingly cranky at times, like Andy Rooney if the renowned 60 Minutes commentator hadn’t been trying so hard to play for wry boomer laughs.
He did not suffer nonsense lightly. And, here, he felt expected to suffer nonsense. So he pounced.
“I am going to… dispute… your characterization of ‘corporate’ as somehow not ‘creative,’” he intoned, straining his preternatural reserves of patience and calm. “Especially in crisis, we’re expected to come up with creative solutions very quickly, often under extreme deadlines and often on our clients’ absolute worst days.”
We didn’t hear much from that account supervisor for the rest of the panel.
When “creative” is used as a noun to describe someone — “Bob is a creative” versus “Bob is a creative person” — it greatly discounts important work output that isn’t “content” or in the service of marketing to consumers. It implies that someone not actively applied to the ideation and production of (and I say this in the non-pejorative sense) stuff is somehow a hidebound, rule-worshipping automaton, whose primary skill is merely based on the mastery of a process rather than the thoughtful exploration of possibilities.
(I also started to notice that one’s status as a “creative” also tended to excuse certain behaviors or sartorial choices in the agency workplace, particularly as PR firms started to bring in folks from the ad and design worlds. I thus started to excuse my sport-jacket-and-thrash-metal-t-shirt ensemble by saying “Nah, it’s cool… I’m creative,” though few found this convincing.)
Early in my career, a client was struggling with how to market a new microchip that was essentially an incremental improvement over its very successful predecessor, which had been designed into video game consoles. Poring over the data sheet, we realized that 1) the device consumed 240 milliwatts and 2) it processed data at 240 million instructions per second (MIPS). “Congratulations,” I said. “We broke the “billion-instructions-per-watt barrier!” With this as the tip of our spear, the device proceeded to get more than its fair share of trade media attention. A creative solution, I think, but one that would not typically be ascribed to “a creative.”
So, comms and marketing folks — whether employed in agencies or in-house environments — let’s expand how we generally approach the word “creative.” Keep it as an adjective, and you’ll find that you’ll find additional inspiration and more meaningful collaboration throughout your organization.
[UPDATE 2021-12-19-2247CT — A previous version had some bad math in the microchip example. Fixed.]
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