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The Bogus Dilemma, or how music can help remove the boundary between creative and media


April 6, 2020 By Bram Meuleman, Head of Strategy, dentsu X UK

We tend to think of creativity as something that comes from within, a singular expression of passion and emotion. That urge to create can’t be contained. It must be heard, seen, felt, or read.

"I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed." (David Byrne, Talking Heads)

While it might strike you as obvious that our surroundings impact what we create, the notion that it determines our output goes against everything we know.

We tend to think of creativity as something that comes from within, a singular expression of passion and emotion. That urge to create can’t be contained. It must be heard, seen, felt, or read.

It’s Mozart crouched over his desk, feather quill in hand, furiously scribbling down the overture to Don Giovanni in one hour-long sitting. Or Paul McCartney waking from a dream, scrambling for pen and paper to jot down the words and melody to “Yesterday”.

This is the romantic notion of creativity.

But, Byrne argues, reality is a little more pragmatic: we instinctively and unconsciously make work that fits the forms available to us.

People living in the African savannah gravitate towards percussive music because its intricate layers and rhythms sound spectacular in the wide-open plains.

Medieval composers tended to stick to music that’s modal in structure. Because the venues in which their music would be performed – churches and cathedrals – have very long reverberation times, they settled on slowly evolving melodies that avoid key changes. This works beautifully in the environment, reinforcing the serene ambience of these buildings.

Jazz music grew from popular music in bars. Musicians would be playing a song, people would be dancing, and to extend the parts of the song that people really liked, they started improvising to make the song last longer.

The advent of commercial and pirate radio in the late 50s / early 60s changed the ideal length of a pop song to a mere 3 minutes and 12 seconds, preferably with a chorus in the first 40 seconds.

Today, Charlie XCX talks about how song writing effectively needs to include a trailer to the song: you’ve got a couple of seconds before people hit the skip button and venture off into the endless Spoti-verse.

Context and content don’t just play off each other; more often than not, context determines the content.

When we talk about creativity and the ideas (or creative) that emerge from it, it’s important to fully appreciate that dynamic.

Thinking about ideas and creativity as being about “creative” only, as not led by “media,” or as in any way a battle between those two is fundamentally missing the point.

What’s more, the nature of ideas is changing.

A major contributor to the success of any advertising campaign is its ability to achieve herd immunity: it relies on the individual’s belief that others have seen what you’ve seen.

Previously, broadcast advertising could depend on a critical mass of people seeing, hearing, and/or reading a piece of messaging. This would then weave its way into the cultural lexicon, simplifying the world for people and making it easier to make snap decisions in a supermarket aisle. This is how Proctor & Gamble built its empire of universally recognisable products.

Buying a Saturday evening ad break would guarantee that a significant proportion of the British public would share that experience. Think: Suzuki owning Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway for a number of years.

However, ad blocking, time-shifted viewing behaviours, the Balkanisation of the content landscape, and the narrowing experience of social platforms – and let’s not even go anywhere near the precipitous decline in trust – have undermined that herd immunity. No two people see, hear, or read the same things at the same time.

The moments of genuinely shared experience are few and far between.

The competition for the few shared experiences left – most often appointments to view like sports or live entertainment – has ramped up, pricing most brands out of the market.

At the same time, ideas that rely on simultaneous shared exposure become less effective. The great big storytelling moments of the past lose some of their ability to have a societal impact because they don’t impact individuals in that society at the same time.

So, what does this mean for brands and marketers?

First, context and content must be defined together if your brand is going to win.

There’s a wealth of new tech developments in advertising delivery creating a range of new canvases (read: context) that marketers can exploit. And every study confirms that ad content (read: creative) is still the second biggest driver of marketing effectiveness, after brand size.

Brands committed to making their marketing work as hard as possible must do away with the artificial boundaries between context and content – and work with partners designed to do so.

We need genuinely integrated agencies that unite skillsets ranging from marketing strategy to creative and from social experience to media planning; agencies where that boundary between context and content doesn't exist.

To make that work, we need to build agencies on the principle of essentialism. Our planning processes need to be radically simplified, creating the circumstances within which a small number of expert practitioners from different backgrounds can come together to make great work happen - and then simply get out of the way.

Second, our ideas need to change.

We need ideas that are at least in part left up to chance. Ideas that make sense regardless of the order in which you encounter them, whether you see them upside-down or inside-out.

Again, the world of music best illustrates this point.

In the 18th and 19th century, composers started experimenting with the form, writing sheet music that could be played either side up and in any order. What determined the final shape of the piece was a literal role of the dice.

One brand that’s been particularly effective at (perhaps unwittingly) adopting this kind of thinking is LEGO. The Danish toy giant built its empire on the concept of free play and infinite possibilities, but what was a competitive advantage in the 70s and 80s turned into an Achilles heel in the noughties: kids no longer knew how to play with LEGO.

In response, the brand focused each of its product lines on giving kids story starters – a character, a setting, and an inciting incident – after which their imagination could safely fill in the blanks.

The lesson?

Marketers and agencies must accept that ideas need to become more chance driven. I believe that the industry is on the verge of a new Golden Age of marketing creativity and the people who unlock it will be those who allow context and content to play together.

But doing this requires closing the gap between planning and execution, pairing up the TV buyer with the copywriter, the paid social expert with the art director, the technologist with the sponsorship expert – complementary skill sets triangulating on the problem to get to better, more impactful ideas.

The brands and agencies that will thrive in the future are those that:

  1. Accept the fact that context determines content more often than not and create the environment in which truly integrated work can happen
  2. Embrace the need for new ideas and mobilise their talent in different ways to make this happen