When speaking to college-level marketing and design students, I’ve found myself forced to contemplate the evolution of our industry as I explain the arc of my own career. When I entered advertising in the early 90s as an aspiring art director, my efforts quickly became focused on delivering advertising concepts for my clients’ primary purpose to build awareness. The “higher funnel stuff” as we referred to it at the time. Remember, back then measurement was pretty basic. If we could get a focus group attendee stuffed with free donuts and coffee and greased with $75 to say that they recalled a brand based on an ad placed in front of them, my clients were happy. And that early work was certainly focused. We developed campaigns limited to executions across broadcast, magazine and newspaper print, outdoor, and radio — all built around our media colleagues’ Gantt charts of defined campaign activity to court our potential customers.
Being a creative in the industry at that time was very much like creating attraction the way an Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus if you want to be precise), or peacock, attracts its potential mates to this day. At the climax of their courtship displays, the majestic bird raises its tail, fans out its elegant tail feathers with their distinctive eye-spotted markings, then vibrates them — even with an auditory rustling sound in additional to their mating calls in case the mesmerizing visual display was simply not enough. That was us, in the same mating dance with the few mass marketing tools we had back then. Our precious campaigns fanned-out like tail feathers that we shook shamelessly to steal quick bursts of the euphoric spotlight amongst the broader cultural conversations, media, and programming that our audiences cared for at any given time.
Big TV and radio buys. Big print and OOH buys. Maybe direct mail drops as well (See, we were integrated with the new relationship marketing departments of the 90s too.). This courtship ritual was intoxicating and effective to greater or lesser degree based on the vibrancy of the brand display that the marketer client could invest dollars to raise and shake.
Seems so simple compared to the scope of services we provide our clients today, right? Since my early days creating ad campaigns at both indie boutique shops and global networked agencies, the internet was born and devices that fit in the palms of our hands have changed human behavior forever by delivering on the seemingly futuristic promise of both micro-targeting and global connectivity. That innovation has also had a force-multiplier effect on the opportunities companies now have to engage audiences, build brands, and impact purchase journeys — all while measuring every interaction and their cumulative impact on brand, business, and consumer behavior.
Devices that fit in the palms of our hands have changed human behavior forever by delivering on the seemingly futuristic promise of both micro-targeting and global connectivity.
When we started the agency I helped co-found, the expansive services we knew we’d need to deliver more effectively for brands even had us questioning the use of the term “advertising agency” to describe ourselves. So, the “creative company” we named Truth Collective was born around the genuine desire to engage with clients and their audiences in newer and more productive ways, all influenced by keen insights in this increasingly noisy and mobile world.
We’re now operating in our sixth year and have grown significantly beyond me and my two partners working at dining-room tables at our homes that first summer in 2013, and we continue to evolve to ensure we keep up with the pace of marketers’ needs, given that the rise and importance of brand experience are now heavily influenced by social media and the broader content marketing environment today.
The creative skillsets that we now employ daily to create the gamut of brand touch points beg considering a different animalistic metaphor for the diverse, multidisciplinary instincts that have developed as the marketing environment has gotten increasingly wild in the past couple of decades. In a relatively short amount of time, we as creatives have had to morph from operators like those regal, but limited, one-trick peacocks, to something equipped to deliver results — from the broadest brand metrics to the most minute shopping behaviors — and adaptive to today’s challenging hybrid media environment.
We are in the age of the creative platypus.
That’s right, I say we are at one with Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or the duckbill, the cat-sized creature that in 1799, when European naturalists first had the opportunity to observe a preserved platypus body, they deemed it a hoax by the trappers that sent the specimen westward, as if they had sewn several animals together as a prank. But this amphibious mammal with its odd combination of primitive features and special adaptations is very much real and thrives to this day in its natural habitat of eastern Australia and Tasmania. With its odd biology that evolved from some of the oldest creatures on the planet, the platypus just may serve as the best Darwinist parallel for a combination of attributes required by creatives flourishing in the marketing landscape today.
The platypus just may serve as the best Darwinist parallel for a combination of attributes required by the creatives flourishing in the marketing landscape today.
Perhaps the most well-known of the platypus’s quirky features is the fact that while the females nurse their young like every other member of the mammalian order on Earth, they do not give live birth to their offspring. Instead, they lay eggs much like birds, reptiles, and fish. Just as the platypus is only one of five living Monotreme species of egg-laying mammals, modern creatives need to be part of the larger, mainstream marketing professional order, nurtured on business-building knowledge, but having the unique ability to create ideas and concepts — the eggs, for the sake of this comparison — and let both their care and forces of the external environment help influence the development of those ideas so they are primed to drive brand experiences. If the offspring ideas are developed in too much of an internal fashion and just thrust into the world, they simply may not be tough enough to thrive in our competitive, multichannel landscape.
Today, creatives need to take the time in the nest of concept generation and execution to ensure that the ideas are not just simple and distinctive enough to survive, but also versatile and measurable in order to grow stronger. Today the best ideas are often incubated with cross-department scrutiny, qual- and quant-based research, a barrage of constructive criticism by our clients and their in-house teams, or in-market research such as A/B testing — all before the young offspring are ready for mass consumption.
Creatives need to take the time in the nest of concept generation and execution to ensure that the ideas are not just simple and distinctive enough to survive, but also be versatile and measurable in order to grow stronger.
Next, let’s consider the platypus’s namesake-worthy duck-billed snout. Well, for the semi-aquatic platypus, those flat bills are perfectly designed for shoveling through the debris of the stream floors and lake beds, where they search for insect larvae, worms, and freshwater crustaceans (their favorite food source). As creatives, we also need a tool to dig through streams of rich cultural sources for relevant inputs to connect in new ways to form our ideas. And once those brand-nourishing ideas are on the table during a brainstorm or tacked to the wall in a critique or review, we need to rummage through all that potential to determine the tastiest sources to nurture (and quickly bypass the waste). That, my friends, is the creatives’ instinctive curiosity and determination. Further, while that unusual platypus bill appears hard and unfeeling, it’s completely covered by a thin, sensitive skin. Yup, that peculiar beak is actually a sensory organ. And as professionals in this field whose job descriptions include concept and idea generation, they need to navigate the environment looking for varied, emotional morsels to formulate new ideas and brand narratives. The creatives’ “duckbills” need to be sensitively attuned to all the feels and capable enough to break them down to produce energy in emotional storytelling form to fuel both their sense of purpose within the company’s accountability chart and the business of their clients.
All sounds pretty taxing, right? Sure is, but just as our platypus friends have evolved behaviorally to forage for their food from dusk till dawn, before returning to their burrowed homes on the banks of streams and lakes to rest, I’m quite confident that the creative process of combing through our collective experiences and gathering new cultural inputs to shape idea generation does not fit neatly within a standard 9-to-5 business day.
You see, the best creatives never really turn off. They are forever foraging for new knowledge and inspiration beyond the confines of their workday. Yes, sometimes the hunt is about deliberate research based on specific, top-of-mind projects, but really all the time spent away from a cursor poised on a blank page or artboard ought to be spent on the constant pursuit of general knowledge on any-and-all subject matters that can inspire ideas. Creatives require a genuine love of learning and exposure to all forms of information, art, and media to foster their unique points-of-view. So, gather input, experience what the world around you has to offer, and feed on inspiration. Then while at rest, the magic of the subconscious creative mind digests all that input. Through repetition, creatives’ idea processes will certainly strengthen so better ideas can surface more frequently. So, get out there; go forage.
The best creatives never really turn off. They are forever foraging for new knowledge and inspiration beyond the confines of their workday.
The trials and tribulations of that incessant hunt require even more adaptations to ensure not just survival, but success. Underwater, the eyes, nostrils, and ear canals of the platypus must remain closed. Its ability to locate and catch mobile prey cannot depend on the tactile senses of the sensitive bill alone. So perhaps the most unique quality of the platypus is its possession of an electromechanical system to navigate underwater. Electroreceptors also found in the bill can detect minute electrical signals given off by the muscles of its prey underwater. The platypus is the most sensitive of all Monotremata animals — the only mammals to have this data-gathering eletroreception capability. Today’s creatives also need to inform their decisions and idea generation with powerful analytics, data garnered from their environments, and measured insight of their target audiences. Reception and collection of the right data greatly enhance the effectiveness of today’s creative by increasing the probability of delivering on their project brief’s strategic insights and proving her or his worth by delivering on the KPIs as outlined by the client.
The physicality of the platypus has also been shaped over time to operate in more efficient ways in both their land-based and aquatic environments. The platypus’s head is streamlined. Even its ears are tucked in grooves just behind their eyes and its torpedo-like body was designed to move through water with surprising agility. Extensive webbing on the front feet extends past its claws providing incredible propulsion while in water, but the webbing folds away while walking on land. Today’s creatives also need to be purpose-built to seamlessly navigate the current of colleagues across departments in increasingly productive ways. Collaborations spanning strategy, account management, production (in all forms — static and motion execution, digital, social, content, experiential), research, and client teams are all routine and require both flexibility and sure-footed confidence. For the platypus, its enlarged paddle-like tail stabilizes its movement while its back feet provide braking and steering with rudder-like precision. Creatives need similar forces of strong drive to promote forward progress, but also a confident, stable pragmatism to keep their efforts grounded to meet the real-world project requirements.
And just as the platypus is equipped with dense, waterproof fur to stave off the cold air and water temperatures, creatives need similar resiliency in order to face what can easily feel like cold criticism of the concepts and executional ideas they’re nurturing at any given time. While not physical fur, a “thick-skinned” attitude can be the first line of defense for all creative professionals required to share ideas, thus inviting criticism of their young-idea offspring. Staying cool under the pressure of that criticism could even be compared to the platypus’ ability to regulate its body temperature even under the harshest of conditions. The duck-billed platypus maintains a low but steady endothermic body temp of 90 degrees at all times — even in extremely cold water for prolonged periods. To say they are cool-headed in under-less-than-ideal situations is not an overstatement. While humans are stuck with their warmer 98-degree internal biology, the heat of crisis or a cold boardroom reception can often stimulate elevated hormonal levels of cortisol that drive up the figurative heat of stress. For the creative, a honed emotional intelligence can provide the ability to stay cool and even-keeled no matter the surrounding forces at-play (reactions resulting from requested modifications by strategy, account, and creative director-level critiques to changes inflicted by client reviews). That high emotional quotient, or EQ, is the ability to discern feelings, then manage and adjust emotions to adapt to environments to ultimately achieve their goals (in this case, getting the best work out in the world to build brands). EQ can also be the determining factor in how constructive criticism is processed by the creative and used to better incubate ideas, so the young concepts are able to fend for themselves in competitive brand terrain.
A “thick-skinned” attitude can be the first line of defense for all creative professionals required to share ideas, thus inviting criticism of their young idea offspring.
And when resiliency and a level-head are simply not enough to defend critical creative turf, sometimes more assertive measures are required by the creative to fight for the purity of new concepts. Today’s creative ought to be armed with focused arguments to protect the integrity of their ideas. Often potent information can be harvested from the creative brief and the clients’ own words, business backgrounders, and research if the creative is attentive to the project input and is actively listening throughout the client engagement. Additionally, strong rationales for the proper production methods to hatch the concepts properly are required to raise or maintain suitable execution investments as new breeds of procurement and production consultants stalk creatives’ ideas that appear overvalued and vulnerable, from their perspective.
While best avoided, baring teeth and other actions to prove dominance during the long incubation of ideas sometimes occurs in the creative wild. But how is it possible that the quirky little platypus can also play this aggressive game? Though platypuses do not have teeth — the aforementioned duckbills feature hardened gums to mash their prey — they are armed with venomous spurs on the inner side of each rear ankle. If provoked, a strike with their hind legs can deliver a potent sting that is strong enough to cause intense pain in humans — and even kill some small animals. Just as dominant behavior and aggression are exhibited by platypuses, this researcher has witnessed career-ending scuffles between creatives and director-level decision makers in the wild. Creative conviction is welcomed, but it can be toxic in excess (See the section on emotional intelligence above.).
Creatives thriving in the wild of today’s marketing kingdom have proven their ability to adapt to new brand challenges within our fast-moving business world. And much like the oddity that is the platypus, today’s creatives often present as quirky, but their resourceful and curious system of attributes employed to nurture business-building ideas and improve brand craft ought not be underestimated.
Platypus skeleton image from the Mammology collection of The Australian Museum. Editorial Illustration by Jeremy Schwartz