Optimisation is the enemy of creativity in marketing and music

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

No, you are not becoming crankier as you approach middle age – music is indeed getting worse every year. And the marketing industry’s obsession with optimisation is to blame.

In late 2017, the YouTube channel Thoughty2 published a video exploring how music has changed over the decades. After starting with The Beatles, the narrator continues with an example of classic British understatement: “Fast forward to 2010, when Justin Bieber released his hit single Baby. This is generally considered to be a bad move.”

According to the research in the video, lyrical intelligence, harmonic complexity, and timbral diversity have decreased while dynamic range compression has been used to make music louder and louder. In short, songs are becoming stupider – especially since every hit now includes the “millennial whoop” as well.

“Instead of experimenting with different musical techniques and instruments, the vast majority of pop music today is built using the exact same combination of keyboard, drum machine, sampler, and computer software,” Thoughty2’s narrator states. “This might be considered as progressive by some people, but it truth it sucks the creativity and originality out of music – making everything sound somewhat similar.”

As a rule, businesses do not like risk. The video states that record companies today must spend anywhere from $500,000 to $3m to sign and market a new artist. That is a lot of money to spend on a band without being fully confident of success.

To minimise the risk and maximise the potential return, these companies optimise the music to do whatever seems to have worked in the past. Same set of instruments? Check. Simple lyrics? Check. Is it loud? Check. Simple melody? Check. Can you dance to it? Check. Millennial whoop? Check check.

But that optimisation process is a downward spiral that will result only in songs that will make Rebecca Black’s Friday sound as brilliant as Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. It is creating music by paint-by-numbers. It is ticking boxes rather than being creative. And the same thing is occurring in the marketing industry today.

The rise of optimisation

After my first career in journalism years ago, I went into marketing and at one point met with a recruiter who was looking for a digital marketer. “I need an expert in SEO, ASO, and SMO,” she told me, further rattling off a lengthier list of random acronyms.

“Optimisation” became all the rage after companies discovered in the 2000s how much traffic websites could attract from search engines. After the birth of search engine optimisation (SEO), marketers tacked on the latter word to create “app store optimisation” and “social media optimisation” as well as countless other uses where the term also made little sense.

App store optimisation (ASO) looks for hacks to increase a mobile application’s ranking and findability in places such as the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store – rather than, you know, creating and promoting a real, useful app that people will like. Social media optimisation (SMO) is a useless term because social media is simply a set of channels and tools that can be used for any specific promotion tactic.

Now, businesses have always discussed general best practices. My last job in journalism in the 2000s was serving as the editor-in-chief and executive director of the Boston non-profit newspaper Spare Change News. (It is one of the newspapers in the United States that are modeled on The Big Issue in the UK.)

In that role, I once attended an annual convention of the North American Street Newspaper Association that was held in Halifax, Canada. There, the assembled staffers discussed the best practices in terms of pricing, circulation, and countless other topics. Today, marketers talk about optimisation, which often means the best practices in line with someone else’s algorithms or what has purportedly worked for others.

Buffer has published studies on the ideal lengths of everything from blog posts to tweets to headlines to Facebook updates. HubSpot has reported the best times to post on social media. But in the end, both best practices and optimisation come down to the same thing: doing what everyone else is doing.

The perils of optimisation

Once, I was in a meeting where people were discussing how to get more traffic from blog posts spread on Facebook. The ideas focused on using psychology and gaming the social network’s algorithm: “Let’s ask people to comment on posts to increase engagement!” and “Let’s change the posts so that they are lists whose headlines start with numbers!”

“Make a funny, creative video advertisement instead,” I suggested, noting the reach that humorous videos receive on Facebook. But no one listened. Everyone cared so much about optimising the form of the creative that no one thought about the creativity of the creative. They prioritised the form over the function.

The perfect example of this is when marketers see studies on which headlines get the most “engagement.” In June 2017, Buzzsumo analysed 100m headlines and found this information on which headlines receive the most clicks, “likes,” and shares on Facebook:

Too many digital marketers use such information and focus on producing whatever marcom is cheapest and then optimising it. Here is a sample of recent blog posts on Medium from a certain prolific marketing writer:

  • 5 Strange But True Habits of the World’s Richest People
  • 5 Smart Reasons to Create Content Outside Your Niche
  • 5 Simple Hacks to Sharpen Your Emotional Intelligence
  • 10 Insanely Good Reasons You Should Publish On Medium
  • 3 Genius Ways to Get More People to Watch Your Video Ads
  • 3 Unusual Hacks to Completely Up Your LinkedIn Game

Bored now.

Too many marketers go overboard and focus on optimisation to produce rubbish marketing such as clickbait blog posts with the same headline format such as this: [number] [unnecessarily strong adjective] [noun] to [achieve some goal].

The internet will continue to be flooded with boring, optimised posts that all have the same title formats in an effort to get clicks or satisfy other short-term metrics. But optimisation is the enemy of creativity and leads to worst long-term results. (Just look at how many reboots of successful TV shows from the 80s and 90s have failed today. The studios likely thought that copying what was done before would guarantee another success.)

Redundant optimisation quickly becomes cliched, hurts the brand, and is obvious to consumers. If Oxford Academic were to title journal articles in the above manner, the Oxford brand would become laughable. The only way for BuzzFeed News to be taken seriously – and the publication is indeed doing excellent journalism – has been to decouple its brand from the notoriously clickbait parent company.

Optimised reflects only short-term thinking. Using clickbait to get people to a website is the same as knocking people over the head and dragging them into your store. They may be there, but they will not buy anything because they will hate your brand.

When everyone optimises for everything, it is no longer a competitive advantage. The only true competitive advantage that people will have is what rests in their brains – creativity. Without that, you will only be as good as everyone else.

The benefits of creativity

According to an updated study in Admap magazine by Data2Decisions founder Paul Dyson, creativity is – by far – the second-best profit multiplier after market size:

Optimisation and best practices aim to do what someone else defines or the best of what everyone else does – but nothing more than that.

"Best practice is like training wheels – it keeps you safe whilst you're learning how to excel in your industry,” Helen Pollitt, head of SEO at the British digital marketing agency Reflect Digital, said. “To really differentiate yourself from the competition you need to be open to experimentation and growth, true optimisation requires facing failure. The issue with sticking to the safe zone of best practice is it stifles creativity."

The best depiction of the benefit of being different that I have seen comes from this BBH ad:

People notice what is different. And if your marketing does not get noticed in the first place, nothing else you do matters. As BBH London strategy director Lucian Trestler recently put it:

“‘Difference’ isn’t just a two bob philosophy or a frivolous creative penchant. It is the most powerful communications tool there is to deliver commercial results. We have a vast amount of data to support that. Evidence from neuroscience, marketing science and creative effectiveness data all agree on this point; difference is commercially safer than ‘safety.’”

Optimising based on data or algorithms is easier than being creative – but it is not always better, according to Wistia co-founder and chief executive Chris Savage.

“Today, everyone scores their leads with Marketo and A/B tests thirty different varieties of their landing page. You can’t get a competitive advantage doing that stuff anymore. You could say that as the percentage of marketers with a certain tech stack or using a certain tool approaches 100%, the competitive advantage you reap from it approaches zero,” he once wrote. "Using data to scale your marketing is critical. But when we all have access to the same types of data, it won’t be the data that differentiates us — it’ll be the art.”

Tom Goodwin recently said something similar: “A/B testing seems to be getting out of hand. Seems to be a way to offload decision making, not have a strategy, or gut or courage. What great art/music/products would ever be made this way?”

But tell that to those digital marketers who think only in terms of optimisation. Tell that to high-tech chief executives who want to mimic the marketing of competitors and think that they need only a differentiated product to be successful. (Just like record companies, startups are risk-averse because they do not want to lose the millions of investor dollars.)

In a quote attributed to John Ward from B&B Dorland in England, “advertising is a craft executed by people who aspire to be artists but is assessed by those who aspire to be scientists. I cannot imagine any human relationship more perfectly designed to produce total mayhem.”

At Digital Annexe University in 2015, Dave Trott gave a classic speech on creativity. Effective communications, he said, needs to have an impact, needs to communicate, and needs to be persuasive. “Impact” is the most important part.

“Impact will get you on the radar,” he said. “Without impact, there’s nothing there. There might be a bloke outside on the street right now telling us the secret of all life, and we’ll never know because we can’t hear him. Without impact, nothing happens.”

Now, take the desire of so many marketers to optimise all collateral to match some alleged universal standard. How will their work be different from that of everyone else? How will their work stand out? How will their work have an impact?

“Optimisation might work for certain businesses for a certain amount of time,” Steve Daniels, an independent graphic designer in the UK, said. “This course of action may feel safer, but it only remains safe if there are no competitors who disrupt the market or start playing the brand game in a strong way. As soon as that happens, focusing on creativity is a great a way to play the long game – and to invest in your future success.”

If your business wants to remain safe, no one will notice you. Taking creative risks is how you become memorable.

A quick recommendation

So, if you want to listen to an album where the musicians wrote their own material, played dozens of instruments, and created songs that are lyrically intelligent, harmonically complex, and timbrally diverse, I have an assignment for you.

Listen to records or remastered CDs of the Moody Blues album In Search of the Lost Chord (1968) and The Smiths’ song How Soon Is Now? (1985) with a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones and some refreshment of your choice. Maybe it will kickstart some creative inspiration.

After all, the Beatles will be remembered forever. Justin Bieber will not.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing and technology keynote speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, consultant and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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