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September 8, 2004
Creativity in the Age of Procurement
 

One of the main paradoxes of our time is the conflict between the growing economic value society places on intellectual property (a lawyerly way of saying "creativity") and the relentless drive towards ruthlessly efficient procurement systems and the commoditization of human talent.

On one hand, creativity and innovative thinking have never been treated with greater reverence.

Companies viewed as owning creative properties fetch an ever higher multiple on Wall Street. This includes companies that own the rights to software, music, film, art and imagery, of course. But it also includes companies that own brands, which are at their core emotional and intellectual properties as much as they are formulas and patents for physical products.

Gifted creative people known for both the quality and quantity of what they create have become brands in their own right—people like Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates and Tom Clancy. But look at people like Picasso, Van Gogh and Disney—dead guys whose creative work today is far more valuable than it was when they were alive.

On the other hand, there is a rapidly growing trend toward purchasing and pricing everything—even creative thinking—through advanced, computerized procurement systems that treat even the most spontaneous and innovative thinker like a commodity. That is: a body is a body, an hour is an hour, a hundred thousand dollar salary is a hundred thousand dollar salary. You, my friend, are just a digit on a spreadsheet.

In a procurement mentality, a dozen creative thinkers can be speced out as precisely as 40,000 copper fasteners or a hundred feet of zinc tubing.

This paradox is particularly interesting to me because I work for Ogilvy, an advertising agency.

The irony of the advertising business is that an advertising campaign idea and its execution are worth no more to the client if it took two guys in a room working for an hour to come up with it than if it took fifty teams working in 12 cities 15 weeks. A good idea, properly executed, can be worth millions—even billions.

A lousy idea can be worth zip. Or less.

Like I said, a paradox.

For people who are creative people—not just advertising copywriters and art directors, but anyone who wishes to make a living out of having ideas and bringing them to life—being aware of this profound dynamic is enormously important.

It's a spectrum with polar opposites. At one end, you have managers who recognize the enormous potential and power of creative people to create value for shareholders—and will pay a premium for the real deal.

At the other end, you have spreadsheet jockeys who will be scrutinizing time sheets hoping to find the most hours for the least cost in a quantitative quest to discover the cheapest provider. And cost consultants, in turn, will scrutinize them.

Look in the mirror and decide: which one do you want to work for? In every department of every organization, one side or the other will ultimately win out.

If you're like me and you expect to be paid a premium in the Age of Procurement, what you offer must be unique—and your first job is to figure out the unique thing you want to be, what you want to do well, and who you want to do it with and for. Which clients do you want to turn into heroes? Who will recognize the sacrifices you must make in order to do something uniquely well?

In the Age of Procurement, imitation is the sincerest form of commodity. And if you are a commodity, you will find that getting a raise or advancing your career will be more about controlling costs than it will be about coming up with The Big Idea.

The more unique we are, the more valuable we will be. The more we are a commodity; the easier we are to replace. I say "we" because it is every bit as true for organizations as it is for individuals.

Creative excellence requires a lot of things: talent, determination, perseverance, the ability to learn, trust, focus, integrity, sacrifice and plain old hard work. A multiplicity of rare skills that yield tangible results and magnificent success stories.

You won an award? Big deal. Awards are like water. Coveted most by those who don't have any.

You took a brand, brought it to life, gave it real value in the eyes of consumers and shareholders? Let's talk. (Oh, and if it wins some awards along the way, that's nice validation.)

In the Age of Procurement, you will need accomplishments so extraordinary and special that they don't fit easily in the spreadsheets—or at least, they demand a column of their own in which there are few or no comparisons to be made.

But more than anything, you will need to be valued and trusted by people who have the power and the gumption to make decisions not just based on numbers, but on intuition, passion, emotion and faith.


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As Co-Head of Creative at Ogilvy & Mather, New York, Chris Wall is responsible for maintaining O&M's tradition of producing great advertising. His experience includes global brands such as IBM, Microsoft and Coca-Cola. Prior to joining Ogilvy, Chris also worked at BBDO and Wieden & Kennedy.
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