Design files | Why marketing teams need creative thinkers

As Mark Ritson is often heard to sigh (or, more accurately, swear) over at Marketing Week, the Australian marketing industry is in dire need of distinctive players. As more and more companies are coming to understand, creative leaders can be incredibly useful in breaking moulds, disrupting standards and understanding what the customer – rather than the corporation – really wants.

“Great minds don’t think alike.” So says Atlassian’s Dominic Price, who gave the closing keynote address at the 2017 B2B Marketing Leaders Forum in May. The most generative, innovative and effective workplace teams, Price argued, are those which are built on cognitive diversity. For an analogy, if we imagine an organisation as an enormous brain, then there is no hemisphere left unfiring. The left side sparks ideas off the right side, the right with the left. Pragmatic teams up with creative. It’s a neural business boogaloo.

Not too long ago, having designers at the top echelons of an organisation was a thing almost unheard of. Today, the scene is different. 31% of startups have a design founder. Since 2004, over 70 design firms have been acquired by big corporations, with 50% of those acquisitions taking place in 2015 and 2016. Pinterest, Airbnb, Khosla Ventures all have design partnerships. And this year, IBM appointed three creative officers to corporate level positions. The McKenzie & Co group one-upped them by appointing four (making now five in total), after gobbling up the design consulting giant Lunar in 2015. Wired got it right – “the business world is increasingly seeing design as a necessary competency”.

No longer are designers just technical pixel-pushers – playing around with the precise curvature of brand logos, the kerning between letters, or deciding whether gold or silver foil looks better on the cover of a custom print journal. They’re being given a seat at the decision-making table, adding their own unique lens to help the company move forward. Trained to problem-solve creatively, tell stories compellingly, challenge the orthodoxy, and always put themselves in the end-user’s shoes, creative leaders are particularly suited to help carry the mission of content marketing forward.

Disrupting the orthodoxy with ‘why’

When a business-focused marketer looks at a problem, the tendency is to jump to deliverables. They ask questions like, “what’s the platform?”, “how can we get this to you?” and “when do you need it?” These are the practical, level-headed questions – and vital ones, without a doubt.  

Where creative people come in is by throwing a spanner in the way that the corporate machine tends to work. Or, they get out their scissors and snip the ‘you ask, we deliver’ loop. In other words, their maverick power is in always, persistently – sometimes annoyingly – asking why. Disrupting default patterns of thought, assumptions are tested, different sides are considered, and premises are unpicked.

By doing this, everyone benefits – the client, the customer and the business. Only when traditional doctrines are challenged, after all, can innovation happen – new ideas, new platforms, new projects. We wouldn’t have an iPhone if someone didn’t ask, “Well, why can’t I watch TV on this thing I speak into?” We wouldn’t have cronuts if some genius hadn’t thought, “I want a donut and a croissant, together – but better.” And we wouldn’t have German film director Werner Herzog talking about the internet in an award-winning documentary if B2B company Netscout decided to produce a white paper about the way the connected world has changed the business landscape instead.

By never settling with rote solutions and by tossing out templates, design thinking can help companies find distinction with their marketing in a competitive world. It’s the difference, essentially, between satisfying expectations – and transcending them.

Looking at a business from a user-centric view

According to Salesforce’s 2017 ‘State of Marketing’ report, over the last 12 to 18 months, “61% of marketers say they’ve become more focused on evolving from a traditional marketing structure to roles aligned with a customer journey strategy.”

The emergence of design thinking as a discipline is incredibly important in this brave, new, customer-centric world. This is because what design thinking does best is empathise with the person at the end of the product or service experience. It gets marketing teams orienting themselves to the world from their point of view, rather than the corporate one.

This is how – as its founders testify – Airbnb climbed out of its “trough of sorrow”, going from a failing startup in 2009 to the billion-dollar international company it is today. For a long time, the founders – just three young guys from San Francisco – were convinced they had to be scalable. Every marketing book and course and podcast and article, after all, says that success is intimately tied with scalability. “For the first year of the business,” says co-founder Joe Gebbia, “we sat behind our computer screens trying to code our way through problems. We believed this was the dogma of how you’re supposed to solve problems in Silicon Valley.”

The turning point was when they sat down with Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, and alighted upon a completely mad solution, according to Valley logic. The photos of these listings, they acknowledged, were pretty dodgy. Dumping their magic coding formula dream, they instead rented a decent camera and took a road trip around New York. Visiting each listing on the Airbnb grid, educating the people renting them out stuff like lighting and focus, and snapping a few gorgeous interiors and exteriors themselves, the humble startup saw its revenue double in just a week. By thinking laterally, the guys took their venture from bust to gangbusters.

As Gebbia told First Round Review, his early design school training had a big influence on how this customer-first mentality has infiltrated the Airbnb culture. “If we were working on a medical device, we would go out into the world,” he said. “We would go talk with all of the stakeholders, all of the users of that product, doctors, nurses, patients and then we would have that epiphany moment where we would lay down in the bed in the hospital. We’d have the device applied to us, and we would sit there and feel exactly what it felt like to be the patient, and it was in that moment where you start to go aha, that’s really uncomfortable. There’s probably a better way to do this.”

Telling stories that stand out

Creative thinkers also tend to be the best storytellers. Hating the repetitive, despairing in the dull, they are compelled to play about until they find the story which is the most exciting, engaging and unique. This can be incredibly useful if your industry is trying to sell traditionally ‘boring’ products like home insurance or data security software.

It’s also invaluable in saturated industries flooded by competitors. In 2015, with video streaming services rushing into the market, telecommunications company Optus knew it had to find a way to cut through the clutter and ensure that when it introduced Netflix, everyone could chill.

“Rather than talk about entertainment, we decided to create something that was entertaining as Netflix,” explained Emotive, which was hired by Optus to head the campaign. The solution? To give comedian Ricky Gervais a call, and pay him to whinge on camera about how this Australian telecoms company he’d never heard about was making him talk about this cool new service he’d never be a customer for. In the footage, he is contemptuous, drawling, and listless. He ad libbed the thing in just one take. It was, essentially, an ‘anti-ad’.

And it worked. The most successful piece of branded content seen by Google, it raked in the second highest views of a YouTube ad that year in Australian and New Zealand. Interest level was six times higher than any other previous TV campaign run by the company, and in 2016, the series was shortlisted for two prizes at the CMI Content Marketing Awards. Even Ellen DeGeneres took notice.

With storytelling the bedrock of content marketing, creative thinkers can be the force to beat the boring out of narratives that risk being dry. It’s not even just about appointing a ‘creative guru’ to the executive either. It’s about businesses being receptive to the full spectrum of energies, perspectives, and skill sets permeating throughout the company overall. After all, who knows? – maybe that new intern skulking by the water cooler holds the secret to your own marketing breakthrough.

Articles you may also be interested in:
Design files | Illuminating audiences with digital storytelling
5 B2B CMOs share their marketing trends for 2017
Thomas Barta: Why your marketing team should lead, not follow

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Job Title: Founder and Managing Director

About Bobbi Mahlab: Bobbi Mahlab is the Managing Director of Mahlab, a company she founded in 1997 after a career in journalism and publishing. Working with global companies and professional associations, Mahlab is known for making complex topics accessible and dry subjects interesting. Bobbi is an avid asker of questions. She will also avoid elevators any time she can.

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