Project work is killing creative innovation

Are one-offs killing creative innovation?

Advertising is oppressing itself with the one-off project. In the name of efficiency, we’re risking the consistent voice that determines real brand value, dividing a brand’s resources against itself, and limiting its opportunities for innovation and relevance.

On the surface of the conference room whiteboard, projects seem like efficient answers to the twin problems of complexity and cost. They’re smaller and contained, so it seems like you’re paying only for what you want done. They’re manageable, there’s no big brand decisions or imagination sessions to complicate the job or raise the cost.

But in the reality of the creative enterprise, projects kill the why that fuels great advertising.

They rob the deliverable of context and perspective — first by not addressing much (if any) of the wider goals or challenges of the brand or the aspirations and tribulations of its audience, and then by providing a direct disincentive for the people making the advertising to deliver anything more meaningful and useful.

Without context, there can be no innovation. New ideas require brand self-awareness, which comes from combinations of little things said, seen, and felt over time — everything matters. It’s the essential source of what makes a brand interesting — the surprising, often overlooked truth that differentiates and resonates. Interesting is a trajectory, not a lightning bolt, and it flows from conscious, constant creative investment.

By contrast, one-off projects force people to make things that need to be hammered into the brand (because they don’t really fit) and often end up being abandoned as outlier efforts. This disrupts momentum. Worse, it confuses a brand’s audience with inconsistent messaging.

For example, the tyranny of the “viral Mother’s Day video” brief is that its measure of success is not connected to anything larger than its own perceived popularity. No matter the result, that project remains on an island apart from the success or failure of the larger brand. If it succeeds, it may only mask deeper brand challenges.

A solution starts with asking the essential questions that projects typically ignore. Why are we doing this for the brand? What’s the overall brand challenge or situation this needs to address? How far upstream can we go to address it? Can we get or create the assets we really need to make something interesting? How will the work be evaluated in the context of the whole brand?

When creative teams are free to do the real job of working for the whole brand within a specific assignment, though, they can discover sources of inspiration the brand owners were not even aware of. They can build the brand to be interesting in a way that is true to its core promise/position. In the process, they can make the individual effort of a project a truly useful part of a brand’s larger messaging trajectory. The work created and the assets produced then play an additive and innovative role rather than a dutiful but fragmented one.

The great irony of today’s project movement is its phantom efficiency. The twin ideals that advertisers chase today — innovation and cohesive brand experience — require continuity in development and approach.

Karen Jacobs, co-founder of Greatest Common Factory, contributed to this opinion.

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