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Why Your Marketing is Not a Creative Opportunity

You want to be creative. But your website is not the place to do it. I know, that runs counter to everything you feel is or should be true about your website. But it is true, and if you stick with me, I think I can convince you.

Many years ago, when I was in school, a few friends and I watched a short video satirizing the advertising industry. It was called The Reel Truth. If you haven’t seen it, take a five minutes sometime today and check it out. It follows a young filmmaker named Tom who has been hired to make a commercial for a corporate client. The gimmick of The Reel Truth is right there in the name: everyone says exactly what they mean. So the kid says something like, “I just really want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to be humiliated in front of everyone.” To which one of the producers replies, “Hey no problem. The great thing is you’re such a gullible idiot that we can lie about giving you work in the future, which will keep you timid and malleable.” You get the idea.

One scene goes like this: While Tom is trying to frame up a shot with some other members of the crew, in walks another producer who introduces “Bob, The Brand Manager,” the only guy on set in a suit. The producer says, “Oh, hi, Tom. Um, Bob here has a suggestion on how to make your life, um, (looking at Bob for confirmation) a living hell?” Bob nods in reply and, turning to Tom, says, “Can I look through the camera?” Before Tom can answer, Bob stoops down, peers through the lens, huffs and puffs a bit, paces, and finally steps back to address the group. With his hands in “thoughtful diamond,” he says, “I think we should go in tighter. I don’t really know why, or even really what I’m talking about, but this is my sole creative act this year other than choosing the color of my minivan.”

That’s the punchline, by the way.

As students, my friends and I were so pumped up by that video. We identified with Tom. We thought, “yeah, man, that’s what it’s like!”

But now, I read it pretty differently. I mean, it’s still funny; there’s no doubt about that. But unfortunately, who I relate to has changed. “Bob the Brand Manager” — the jackass in the suit — that’s us. It hurts to admit it, but it’s true.

Besides this one interaction, The Reel Truth takes time to lampoon everyone involved in advertising and expose the one thing they all have in common: misplaced creativity. They’re all suffering under the burden of making their mark on this thing, when the thing they’re making really doesn’t need any of that. It needs to introduce its audience to a product, demonstrate what that product is good for, and then make it clear to those who are interested how they can get their hands on it. Pretty simple. No Dutch angles or method acting needed.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Ok, well let me tell you one more quick story.

When Your Business Is Interesting, Your
Website Doesn’t Have to Be

Just recently, I was on the phone with the creative team at a large agency I’m consulting, looking at their latest concepts for their new website’s home page.

And it was beautiful! They had a gorgeous, edge-to-edge image and headline at the top of the page that made what they do very clear. They featured some big projects they were proud of beneath that. Then, they had a gushing testimonial from an impressive client. And finally, they had a bunch of featured content that made it clear that they were smart and thoughtful about what they do. They were really proud of this design, and especially excited they’d taken an earlier recommendation I’d made for how to prioritize the information on their homepage and implemented it in a way that hit every point I’d made but felt true to them. After I looked over it for a few minutes, they asked, “So, what do you think?”

“Well, I think it looks great,” I said. “But could you scroll back up to the top?

The Creative Director scrolled all the way back to the top of this very long page. I looked, again, at the image and the headline and the big “learn more” button. Then, I took a deep breath and said, “OK, so I know this is a preliminary sketch, but what were you thinking you’ll do for your navigation menu?” At that point, there was no menu there. Just the big, pretty image, the headline, and the button.

The Creative Director cleared his throat and said, “Oh well, uh, you know, we actually thought that since each of these rows covers a main section of the site, we don’t need to duplicate that at the top.”

I let that hang for a moment. “So wait, are you saying you’re not going to have a navigation menu?”

“Well, um, we think it’s just, uh, more interesting this way. And we really want to make a statement, you know?”

Aha.

I thought about this for a moment. And then I said, “Imagine you were building a new home, and I was your architect. And you showed up one day at the lot to see how things were going, and you noticed that there was no front door on the house, but when you asked me about it, I said, well, gee, you know, you’ve got windows into every room of the house, so I was just thinking it’d be more interesting if you climbed through those. I mean, you’ll still get in the house. Every day will just be more interesting!”

When your business is interesting, your website doesn’t have to be.

They laughed. But they also got the point. I reminded them that when your business is interesting — when you offer something that people need, that you can give them better than anyone else — you don’t need your website to be interesting. You need it to work.

Why We Inevitably Stray

Agencies get this. But what I’ve observed is that most agencies tend to get it temporarily. At the beginning, they’re ready to change how they do marketing and sales and, without exaggeration, it’s almost like a conversion experience. It’s a big aha moment. But then, a few months in, they inevitably stray. And it’s typically when someone produces a design mock up.

Because we’re all just like Bob the Brand Manager, and it’s our one creative act this year other than making things for clients who — thank god — don’t let us be as creative as we want to be. We’re all Bob the Brand Manager, and we don’t know it.

Or, as I’ve heard David Baker say plenty of times:

“You’re inside the milk bottle, and you can’t see label…”

…and, you’re drowning in your own milk. (I added that last part.)

As a postscript, I should add that, though the principle is clear, it doesn’t mean it won’t be compromised at some point. After all, that’s the whole point: Our creative drive is intoxicating and needs to be controlled in order to not overshadow or overpower the intended purpose and function of what we’re making. But how do you do that?

We’ve created a system for this, one that I’ll share more about in future articles. But for now, I encourage you to take a look at the basics of it and start thinking about your own process. Ask yourself, how do you ensure that your website is more than just a thing of beauty? How do you protect the investment you’ve made in creating the platform for all of your digital marketing activities? How do you keep from veering off-course when the creative process gets underway?

Staying accountable to the true purpose of your website — which is to create opportunity and have a measurable impact on your business — should be the most important directive in the creative process, and yet it’s commonly overlooked. But with the right insight and the right system, you can change that.

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