Creativity in the Post-Digital Age

The ability of a business to be creative may be its only defense against slipping into total commoditization

Creativity is one of the most potent business tools of the post-digital age, but one that is frequently misunderstood and poorly deployed.


It is most commonly associated with creative execution—the making of an artistic object. It tends to be both dismissed as frothy flotsam and yet revered as something that only people with very special skills can even attempt undertaking.

And its place is often just a late-stage flourish only to be entertained once the hard yards of sober analysis and planning have been completed.

In truth, creativity is a fundamental strategic tool that should be deployed from the outset. It is as much about a way of thinking as it is about a way of doing or making.

And it is something that is within pretty much everyone’s reach, practiced by most of us every day whether we realize it or not.

It is how our brains naturally work. We surmise and intuit. We form impressions and hatch opinions. We envisage consequences and make up plans to achieve or avoid them. We frame factual sequences as stories. We form judgments, we engage empathy, and we imagine possibilities.

We all do these things, and they all play out in the business environment too. Creativity involves taking leaps of non-logic, allowing ourselves to follow our guts even when we can’t explain why. But it’s about much more than just making stuff up by pulling it out of thin air.

It comes from carefully looking for the clues behind the data, from searching out fresh—and sometimes distanced—perspectives. It has a constant eye out for new points of inspiration, or new combinations of familiar elements or patterns.

It is open to pursuing potential dead ends rather than obsessing over the relentless drive for “right first time.” It embraces the vague and puts a value on nuance.

It’s about observation, hypothesis, and building potential scenarios. It deals in directions rather than absolutes, and always remains open to course-correction and improvement.

Creativity happens when people feel confident and happy. It rarely flourishes when they feel threatened or under pressure.

It can be fragile and in need of constructive nurturing. It arises when the brain is given time to let thought percolate rather than panicked by the need to deliver urgently.

Businesses don’t become creative by learning a few new tricks, but by orienting their whole model around a different approach that gears everything—recruitment, environment, tools, protocols, process, etiquettes, reward—around provoking and promoting inspiration, curiosity, and license. These are the businesses that put a premium on risk-taking, experimentation, and resisting the obvious.

Creativity is not about just crafting some concrete artifact. The manifestation is the product of the creativity, it’s not the creativity itself.

Being creative avoids starting with the answer and trying to work backwards. It doesn’t deal in definitives. It’s never about the one right solution, but about a right solution among many.

As knowledge becomes increasingly automated, for many companies the ability to be creative may soon become the only defense against slipping into total commoditization.

Creativity is not about precious fancies but commercial pragmatism. Not all business challenges lend themselves to solutions that can be worked out systematically.

When the answer just can’t be calculated, creativity may open the door to more interesting, powerful, and ultimately valuable outcomes.

Kevin May, founding partner of Sticks, is a veteran of UK and U.S. advertising industries. A graduate of Oxford University, the first 20 years of his career were spent in London, at agencies such as J Walter Thompson, TBWA, CDP, AMVBBDO, and Y&R, as well as time working as a journalist and independent strategist. He came to the U.S. in 2005 to head up the planning department at Publicis in Seattle, before leaving to start Sticks in 2009. He has provided the strategic smarts behind numerous campaigns that have won awards for both creativity and effectiveness in market, including Nestle, RAF, Telegraph, Gallaher, Virgin, Canon, T-Mobile, and Washington Lottery.

Kevin May

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