The paradox of commercial creativity

John Scarrott

Did you realise that your business is a bit of a riddle? A riddle, that needs to be managed. And it’s how well you’re able to manage it that determines in large part your success.

The riddle

Within every creative business there exists a fundamental paradox. This is the challenge of marrying the inherently contradictory elements of creativity and business. This applies as much to the inner workings of a creative business as it does to its client relationships.

The foundations of this paradox are built on the differences between creativity and business. Typically, the creative process is characterised by its inherent playfulness, its open-mindedness to possibility, an eye on the bigger picture. It benefits from being fairly unrestricted and unbound by time. Its output is unique every time and it can’t be seen before it’s commissioned.

Typically business is more single-minded and structured, focusing on its ability to predict with reliability across specific time periods and built on tangibility and detail. Business prefers to quickly refine down choices to the most appropriate and then implement. Speed is important. Time presses. And risk aversion is often high, meaning being able to predict what is going to happen before it happens is important.

Of course I’m generalising to some degree but you get the picture. So what might this mean for a creative business?

Firstly, it’s possible to create systems to work around these challenges. Particularly when you’re in the early years of the business or when you’re small and working with clients who are more like you in terms of size.

But there often comes a point when a creative business owner will realise that things have changed for them. Maybe they are not enjoying their work as much as they used to.  Sometimes it’s the work that they’re doing that is the problem. Or, the brands they’re working with. Sometimes it’s the lack of opportunity to explore ideas and areas that really fire them up. Or it could be the client relationships that have changed along with their expectations.  Often the root of these issues can be found in looking at the paradox and rebalancing it.

What can you do?

Develop an awareness of the relationship between creativity and commerciality and when it might become important. This will vary from business to business. Here are some examples:

If you’re a smaller design agency embarking on business with a larger business, put yourself in their shoes. What might they expect to see in order to feel comfortable with talking to you? What do you need to put in place to close the gap between you and them? What does your contract look like? Who owns the IP on your ideas?

If you’re a design business with teams of creatives, account and new business staff, what opportunities do you create for them to share their knowledge with each other? Could your creative team share their process with your new business team? Could your new business team be useful to your creative team in sharing their skills, for example presenting or answering queries.

What about sharing knowledge and insight with your clients? This can be tough during the day-to-day when deadlines are pressing (another example of the paradox at work). How about creating a half-day for your clients where you bring their team in to meet your team, hear a speaker, perhaps meet associates of yours and hear insight from them.  Bring the creativity and the commerce together.

How commercial is your work? And are you driving this conversation? You can balance this without becoming all about the money. Approach your client conversations from the angle of what they want to achieve through their investment in your expertise. And explore how they will then determine that your work has had this effect. This way, you will take control of the conversation.

How about setting a goal of doing one additional thing each month to nourish your understanding of the business side of the paradox?  This could be watching a webinar on an aspect of your business, attending an event where your clients will be present, having a service call with one of your clients. If you do one extra thing a month next year, you’ll find they’ll build up. And let’s face it, you’re more likely to do one thing than trying to scale a mountain.

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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  • Jack O'Hern November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Most common issue I come across in relation to this is the value / price conundrum.

    If you hit upon a great idea for a client instantly, is it any less valuable than an idea that took you four weeks to come up with?

    The best solutions are often the simplest, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable to one’s clients.

    Knowing the commercial costs within your business is one part of the equation, understanding the value to your clients is quite different. Whether the value is higher or lower than the ‘cost’ is just as important.

  • Michael Dale November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    You make some great points John. It is impossible to undervalue the need for continuous learning. As agencies grow in size, the need to specialise and grow into T-shaped people, is almost unavoidable. However, it is important to maintain a balance and grow both breadth and depth in equal measure.

  • John Scarrott November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thanks Michael, it’s a subject with real depth, so much so that there are 2 more to come, the paradox of creative commerciality, and the paradox of knowledge……

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