It’s Time to Measure, and Unlock, Creative Capital

Over the past two years, we’ve experienced shortages of everything from semiconductor chips, construction materials, pet food, cream cheese, Heinz individual ketchup packets, baby formula, tampons, and even the color blue. Now with recession alarms ringing across the globe, I predict that we are going to be facing a creativity shortage as well. Historically, we’ve seen that when the economy falters, business leaders start treating creativity as the thing they can do with less of. Even in the best of times, most humans are biased against inventive, potentially disruptive, creative ideas: We’re wired to do whatever we can to reduce uncertainty.

Part of the problem is our current understanding, or lack thereof, around creativity. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed the advertising industry treat creativity as if it were a dark matter: a largely theoretical phenomenon that we trust exists, but that lies beyond our realm of comprehension. We view creativity as a secret sauce, immeasurable except in relation to something else: awards, virality, fame, sales, growth. Sounds very uncertain.

Nowhere is this tension on clearer display than at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which concluded just last month. Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at Procter & Gamble, gave a full-throated defense of creativity in a Cannes keynote, calling it a “superpower” and a “force for growth,” while admonishing brands that would pull back creative budgets. Yet he also acknowledged that CMOs are struggling to convince their CEOs and CFOs “that marketing creates value and is worth investing in,” and answering the question, “What is the business case for creativity?”

First off, I wholeheartedly agree with Marc’s read of the landscape. But if we accept creativity to be this indispensable ingredient, then why haven’t we measured, optimized, and understood it to the degree we do so many other business inputs? We track, measure, buy, sell, and trade social capital, intellectual capital, human capital, and working capital. Why has our industry failed to capture and quantify creative capital? It’s ridiculous we haven’t, especially when we have so much to gain from doing it–and so much to lose if we don’t.

Since becoming global CEO of Huge a year ago, I’ve come to realize that we must treat creativity as a measurable input–a knowable quantity that not only can predict business outcomes, but can prove beyond any doubt the central role creativity plays in delivering sustainable growth for an organization.

It’s time to move beyond hunches, anecdotes, and bursts of inspiration, and build universal, analytical rigor around creativity’s practice. It’s time for creativity to become the responsibility of everyone within an organization, not just a specialized class of individuals called “creatives.” It’s time our industry embraced creative capital–not by choice, but by necessity.

Luckily for us, there’s never been a better time to get started. We’re alive in an age where if something has an impact on an audience, marketplace, or business, it can be measured. For example, entire companies exist to measure the power of individual TV ad units.

And what about the TV shows themselves? Years ago, nobody could explain why one show succeeded and another failed; There was just a well-meaning guesswork. Then the streaming companies made TV production an analytical pursuit. Hit shows didn’t suddenly fall out of the algorithm, but the streaming services got better at identifying and measuring the inputs that mattered to audiences. They then shared those inputs with writers, showrunners, producers, agents, and marketers, who created the most binge-worthy programming ever made.

This is where creatives begin to squirm, and who could blame them? Given the traditional silos between data analytics and creative, their apprehension is well-earned. But I’m not suggesting creativity is mechanical. The most innovative thinkers–whether they’re in media, product design, fashion… really any creative field–already treat data like a sparring partner, a co-creative in the room. When I was first a judge at Cannes in 2016, I was pleased to see the beginnings of data-driven creativity, and its presence has only increased since then. It’s proven beyond any doubt that when you’re inspired by insights rooted in your audience’s motivations, the brief becomes clearer, the work sharper, the rewards sweeter. Data becomes the foundational ingredient of a creative team’s success.

But that’s not nearly enough. Leveraging data-based insights in the service of creative concepting–or creative problem-solving in general–still treats creativity as an output or “dividend.” Only when creativity is understood as the sum total of a series of inputs including (and impacting) an organization’s people, products, operations, and even values, growth can truly accelerate.

That’s a more generous, holistic definition of creativity than most organizations hold. But through this broadened aperture, every consequential piece of a business–from customer service to product development to recruiting to supply chain logistics–becomes an input for measuring and generating creative capital. And once it’s measurable, you then can take targeted actions that reduce underperformance and increase growth. Suddenly, the organization is not only more creative, but more resilient.

We’ve lived the alternative, and it’s not working. When you first engage with a client or creative partner, it’s impossible to assess the creative capital they’ve built to date in any objective, consistent way. But let’s imagine you could. From that baseline, you could then forecast where you’d want to move. Most business KPIs are already predicated on this idea: “This is where we’re at, this is where we want to go.” When a client and their partner root their creative decisions in a shared understanding of a data set, they can move forward together with uncommon confidence.

OK, so how would we measure creative capital? What would we measure? We first need to acknowledge how much creative work starts with half-baked, store-bought insights. When your focus group consists of 15-20 people–many of them there to collect a gift card or other token incentive–guess what? You get what you pay for. Yet we’ve historically drawn foundational insights off these flawed samples, rather than going out with a discerning, expansive, data-driven approach.

Why not go to where data is live, real-time, and dynamic; assessing the data pool; and get quality inputs to inform the team’s creative process? It’s like preparing a meal: Do you want fresh ingredients, or do you want the off-the-shelf, flavorless stuff?

We’re here to tackle the problem, and do it with a consistent methodology. Creative capital must be a living measure, not some big, moment-in-time research push at the beginning and end of an engagement. Quantifying creative capital doesn’t start with reams of tedious questionnaires, but with the mechanisms that matter. A company’s velocity of product launches could inform its creative capital baseline. It might be the amount of buzz they have, as expressed through search terms or social media engagement. Does the brand show up in conversations around innovation? Natural language processing and semiotics analysis, with support from behavioral psychology-driven AI, can pick up those signals in ways humans cannot. (Yes, machines can help improve our understanding and evaluation of creativity.)

Huge is focusing its data and insights capability on this problem right now, and building tools that will enable organizations across the globe to generate and harness creative capital to better achieve their business transformation goals, whether through operations, new capabilities, and even culture.

Of course there is enormous complexity to it. There is nuance. After all, we’re dealing with the slipperiest substance on earth: emotional response. But as more proof points are added, and with constant iteration and practical application, this AI-driven capability will learn, refine, and become more sophisticated. The statistical noise will be dialed out, and the fidelity of our insights and recommended next actions will grow.

As Cannes reminded us, as it does every year, there’s great joy in creativity. When a message, product, or action resonates with its target audience, it can spark a connection that lasts a lifetime. If we can deliver that consistently to our brand partners, we not only secure creative investment, but the survival of our entire industry.

And that, friends, is a prize beyond measure.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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