How can social marketers put more creativity and innovation into their work to inspire and move people and communities to better health and improved well-being? That is a question that bedevils many staff, managers and administrators who find that they need to stop the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again to achieve the same small effects. Being ‘creative’ or ‘innovative’ doesn’t happen by simply giving people permission to do so. Especially in the public and nonprofit sectors, it’s not that easy. Many managers and staff come from academic backgrounds where creativity and innovation are never directly addressed in their coursework, field (work) placements or internships (though there are exceptions). Others work in organizations where the fear of failure, and CYA, keeps people from taking chances. Unless you have had direct experience working with one or more creative directors (and that only happens in well resourced environments that can contract with outside agencies), the mystery of what they do can seem impenetrable and difficult to do on your own.

People who work on environmental, public health or social issues have the ‘research evidence’ beat into them: stray from the evidence base and there will be consequences. ‘Being creative’ is not in most of our job descriptions – yet each of us deeply believes that, if given the chance, “Hey, I can be creative!” When the opportunity to ‘show some creativity’ is offered, in my experience the results usually fall not far from the evidence tree.

Those programs come from the cooks who follow the beaten path of program development protocols and apply the evidence with a sprinkling of ‘creativity’ (often seen these days as trying to use a new social media channel – Meerkat anyone?) – preferably in the original, science-based language so that everyone else in their bureaucracy will ‘approve’ it. These planners rarely have the calling to seek the perspective of people they wish to serve. Yet many of them are sometimes very open about their wish that they could break out of their usual approach and be more creative, to do something different and potentially more valuable for the people they serve. For those of you who have similar yearnings, an article in this month’s PharmaVoice (March, 2015) on Creative directors’ secrets to success has some concrete suggestions.

Creativty-letting go of certainties

1. The very first one is to gather and keep resources for inspiration, not just journal articles from your professional organizations and affiliations, but creative ones as well. Try design magazines and websites, marketing websites, and groups that feature campaign reviews and awards (see Warc prize for social strategy, PRSA anvil winners, Clios and Osocio).

2. Learn the fundamentals of strategy, branding, copywriting, and design – maybe someday we’ll see courses like these in schools of business, engineering and public health, Until then, try those last four links. And if you have opportunities to work with people who have these skills, respect them and don’t try and turn them into one of you. Unfortunately, I have seen public health people do that to creatives more often than not. Embrace them as part of your interdisciplinary team who are bringing new ways to think about problems and solutions. You may not think that their approach makes sense, but withhold your judgment until you see what people who are the priority group think about it.

3. When working with creative projects concern yourself with directing and guiding the work, putting the right people in place, and then letting them do their thing. Some creatives like to go off and work by themselves, more of them are realizing that working with you and members of the priority group is a better approach (co-creating). Try and keep in mind that these are opportunities for you to listen, observe and learn – not to be the censor or devil’s advocate.

4. Strong positioning leads to strong, creative ideas. Find a distinctive place in the mind of your priority group that differentiates what you are asking them to do from other competitive offerings (both from other marketers and the alternative behaviors). If you can do that, then you have a chance to come up with the break through idea – the ones you see in other campaigns and wonder “How did they do that?

5. Your job is getting people in the real world to attend to, remember and act on your efforts. Nothing else (should) count.

6. You can do that by creating experiences (the mix of messages, product and service) that touch people emotionally, enlightens them, inspires them AND shows them the way to new behaviors. As one CD put it; “Powerful words, pictures, and ideas — no matter what channel they’re circulated through — remain magical things that can move hearts and minds.” 

7. Keep your positioning statement, key insights, and strategy front and center throughout the process (you do have these, don’t you? They should be in your program or creative brief). Too often what is used as the touchstone for whether a creative idea is appropriate is how well it fits the theory and evidence, not how well it fits into people’s lives and experiences.

8. To get the most effective creative ideas and work, customer insights need to be the core of your creative brief. Research and data are important, but they can handcuff you to the usual approaches. Talking with and learning from members of your priority group are where insights happen – if you give them the space to tell them to you and not always be answering your questions. As another CD put it: ‘An insight is a relevant truth, nothing more and nothing less,… It’s not a secret that only you’ve managed to uncover. It’s what the customer already knows, be it consciously or not.’
See Aspiring to Audience Insights – Part I
Aspiring to Audience Insights – Part II

9. The best, most effective creative begins with a single-minded and inspirational brief. Not from the ones that are diffuse and mired in data and theory.

10. Get rid of fear of failure. Constantly challenge yourself and your team to consider the costs of fear. Think dangerously!

SO if you want more creativity in your program activities, it doesn’t start by ‘being more creative.’ Being creative means having a process that starts with deeply listening to and understanding your priority group, uncovering the insight that leads to world-changing ideas, creating a positioning statement that drives strategy by offering a compelling reason why your offering (or behavioral choice) is superior to the other options that are available to someone, putting it all down in a program or creative brief to refer to consistently through the process, and aim to shift hearts, minds and behavior. It’s a creative approach that doesn’t have to wait for a new initiative or inspiration; look at one your existing programs and start asking dangerous questions.

Image from Denise Krebs on Flickr.


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