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Constrained Creativity?

Digital Optimization, Focused Thinking and the Mind of a 10 year-old

Like many kids her age, my oldest daughter has an uncluttered, unjaded mind. And while that perhaps explains the ability of an elementary schooler to see things from an admirably mature, coherent perspective we multitasking grown-ups can't seem to muster, it doesn't stop me from often wondering, If 10-year-olds get it, why don't we all?

It might seem odd to think about that question in the context of modern marketing, but the way she thinks recently helped me wrap my own head around something many of us seek to master: digital optimization. Here's how.

My daughter went on a school field trip to the Museum of Modern Art earlier this week, and at dinner that night she talked about how excited she was to have seen some original Picassos. "Picasso was like a scientist," she said between bites of fish sticks. She went on to explain how his paintings she had seen, like Seated Woman and The Kitchen, had a level of dimension and detail that reminded her of how scientists obsess over every feature of an object or experiment. "Scientists ask a lot of questions," she said. "Everyday people can be scientists like that."

I don't want to think outside the box. I want to kill it inside the box. Give me the business parameters and end-game goal, and we will be off to the races.
Brad Young, Global Content Marketing Strategy Leader

Not sure if a teacher or some MoMA tour guide planted this notion with her, but I'm a proud dad so I'm going with it being her own thought. And it's a pretty deep one that has been explored by highly intellectual comparisons of Picasso and his contemporary Albert Einstein as the fathers of modern art and science. Picasso's cubism was in fact influenced by science, technology and the mathematical theories of a left-brained insurance actuary, just as right-brained aesthetic concepts helped Einstein discover relativity. "We wonder about the moment when everything comes together to produce incredible insights," author Arthur I. Miller writes in his Pulitzer-nominated 2002 book Einstein, Picasso. "How does this happen? How do thoughts emerge that go beyond the information at hand? Answering these questions demands a multidisciplinary mode of thinking and analysis that is becoming progressively more important as lines between disciplines become blurred."


While Miller writes that these two pioneers set a "cornerstone of high creativity" for the 21st century, no CMO worth his skinny jeans would hit LinkedIn exactly looking to hire a Picasso/Einstein. (Now that is a unicorn.) Yet the blended discipline they represent is the ideal that marketing teams seek in the digital age, where data science and artistic creativity are supposed to work together to optimize powerful, highly relevant customer experiences. The expectation is that marketing teams will serve up the right content to the right prospect in the right moment to drive the right action.

For many companies, the reality is far different, and I believe the key to achieving it is summed up in a perhaps uncomfortable phrase: constrained creativity.

As a content creator looking to effectively fuel the digital optimization of online environments, I don't want a blank whiteboard and a room full of people staring at me, waiting to fill it with concepts. I don't want to think outside the box. (Ugh - I know. Bear with me here.) I want to kill it inside the box. Give me the business parameters and end-game goal, and we will be off to the races.

Here are four ways we are trying to constrain our creativity at Dun & Bradstreet. Four sides of our box, you might say.

1. Focus On the Audience

We are in the early days of driving all of our marketing activities through a persona-based approach. Your company might be like ours, with dozens of products and services that cut across multiple functions of our B2B clients – sales and marketing, finance, supply chain, compliance and IT. We would flail wildly if we were to try and think of story ideas and content environments without the individual context of pain points and opportunities faced by the core buyer personas in each of these practice areas. By starting here, and having our marketing colleagues keep us honest on what these personas are really looking for, our constrained creativity drives relevance.

2. Maintain a Consistent Point of View

Content marketers have read enough to know that pretty much the dumbest thing we can do is develop a bunch of propaganda about how great our company is. We must add value by providing insights that help those target personas do their jobs better. But we can do that in ways that reflect our company's unique point of view. The audiences we serve have a wide variety of knowledge needs and curiosities. We would be foolish to try to meet all of them. We have to stay to the topics where we have credible expertise, and we have to explore those topics in a way that reflects our world view on data and analytics. In this sense, our constrained creativity drives thought leadership and differentiation.

3. Respond to the Customer's Behaviors

Our content experiences will thrive as we enhance our ability to respond to the audience's signals of buying intent. We are working closely with demand generation functions to systematically develop and distribute content specifically for learn, solve, compare and purchase buying stages. The way the personas interact with content within those stages gives us direction on what kinds of information they will likely want next. This lets our constrained creativity inspire action.  

4. Listen to Customer Data

It's one thing to collect and analyze customer data. It's another to actually listen to it. Data underpins the first three sides of the box listed above, so making sure your data is consistent, clean and ubiquitously shared is vital. But it also adds the fourth side: Is what we are doing actually working? That's the question we ask our data as often – and in as many ways – as we can. This lets our constrained creativity drive results.

I had this notion of constrained creativity in mind as my daughter talked about her MoMA trip, so I decided to ask her about it. First, did she think scientists could be as creative as artists? "Oh yeah," she said. "Thomas Edison failed like a thousand times before finally figuring out what he was trying to do. He just had to keep thinking about how to do it."

OK, so if that's true, in school would she rather have the ability to think of whatever she wanted or have the focus of knowing what issue she was trying to solve for? Both had their merits, but she seemed to prefer the more scientific – what I would call constrained – creativity. "Scientists know what they want but it's the art of adding more," she said. "If you know your end goal and as you slowly get more information, facts and ideas, you build a recipe. You are constantly adding more and more to make it better. You are trying to complete the recipe for the end goal.

"You don't want to have such a goal that you're not willing to look at new ideas but you also want to have enough of a goal that you don't know what you're working toward."

Her school needs to have more field trips. Or we all should start hiring 10 year-olds.

Image credit: "Crayola Lincoln Logs," @laffy4k, flickr. http://ow.ly/J1szT



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