Commodifying Creativity

Why Commodifying Creativity Hurts Us All

Regardless of whether or not we have “creative” in our official job description or title, I’d bet that most of us like to think of ourselves as creative humans. We daydream, we question, we problem solve, and we find joy in those “aha!” moments when something just clicks and we’re able to see a question or challenge in an entirely different light. 

Now think about when and where most of those “aha!” moments happen. Are they when you’ve been sitting at your computer with your nose to the grindstone for 6 hours? Or are they when you’re walking the dog, taking a shower, cooking dinner, or doing ANYTHING besides “cranking it out?”

I know for me, it’s unequivocally the latter. And according to psychology, I’m not alone. An article in Psychology Today suggests that “people’s ability to think about information in new and unusual ways can actually be hampered when they wield too much brainpower.”

So why then, if our best ideas come to us when they’re given time and space to percolate, why are many people still operating in workplace cultures where the speed and quantity of our work is valued over its quality?

Illustration of man sitting on stool with the word create

I read a truly thought-provoking article recently about the dangers of using productivity metrics as our main KPIs foremployee success, especially in industries like advertising and marketing, where so much of our strategy and creative work requires deep thinking before the doing can even get started. When we gauge an individual’s or team’s performance based on the volume of their output rather than the quality of their outcomes, we’re commodifying something that was never meant to be solid and graspable: creative thinking. And when we do that, it’s a slippery slope to commodifying the individuals and teams themselves, which is one of the most surefire ways to expedite the path to people feeling undervalued and burned out.

We’re all too familiar, especially at this point in time, with the high business and personal costs of employee burnout. But if that’s not enough to rethink the emphasis on productivity as the end-all-be-all, there’s another substantial risk here, too. Prioritizing output over outcomes means that you’re essentially incentivizing your teams “against taking on projects that require deeper, more structural (and riskier) work,” which are often the kinds of projects that end up creating the greatest leaps forward for your goals, your impact, and your bottom line. 

So how do we break the productivity cycle that keeps us stuck in doing rather than thinking? Or at the very least, shift it from being at the top of our KPI list? 

The article I mentioned above has some great recommendations for focusing more on effectiveness than efficiency, and I wanted to expand on them a bit here:

  • Set goals that are based on impact, for example, increasing revenue or donations by 10%, rather than launching 10 ads or writing 6 new emails. This is something we often think about at Media Cause when working with our clients. When a client comes to us with a goal of reaching 50K social media followers, for example, we ask questions to better understand what the higher-level human or organizational objective is. If the goal is framed in terms of outcomes—needing to raise money to fund a new program, for example—that opens the door to multiple ways to achieve that outcome, rather than focusing on a specific output—followers—that may or may not ultimately impact donation rates. Framing your work in this context is not only helpful for agency/client relationships, but also for individuals. It helps each person on the team understand the value they’re bringing to the process beyond “producing something,” and provides a sense of ownership that leads to higher quality work and a greater sense of fulfillment. 
  • Celebrate progress along the way to your goals. Make sure you acknowledge with your team that every step forward (and every new idea) makes a difference and that success isn’t all about the final deliverable. Sometimes the greatest breakthroughs happen when you accidentally stumble into something outside of your predetermined path. If you’re solely focused on the end game and not paying attention to the journey, you might just miss out on an incredible idea.
  • Recognize that creative work—developing strategies, ideation, writing, design—all require thinking time. Help your teams structure their workdays to allow for ample space to be in their heads, or nature, or art, or whatever inspires them, rather than tethered to their keyboards. This HBR article talks about how adding “moments of awe” to your everyday routine actually helps people feel more “inspired, calmer, and better able to focus” later on. For me personally, having dedicated “no meeting” blocks on my calendar gives me the flexibility to use that time in whatever way feels right, at that moment, to find my awe and do the creative thinking that’s needed. Sometimes I’ll get deeply focused on problem solving, other times I need to let my mind skip between different sources of inspiration. The actual activity matters less to my creativity than knowing I have the permission, and the space, to do it. Freedom is where creativity thrives. Give your team the freedom to explore, and they’ll give you back ideas that are worth far more than an extra page or two of a report.
  • Reconsider how you evaluate your employees, as well as any agency partners you work with. Make reviews and conversations more about their contributions to advancing your overall goals than meeting specific delivery numbers. I know this sounds counterintuitive, especially when those numbers are tied to revenue. But the lifetime value of a project done deliberately, and with excellence, is far beyond that of a project done quickly but mediocre-ly (is that a word?). It’s like the tortoise and the hare—we all know which one wins in the end.

While all of these suggestions can help on an outward organizational level, I believe the biggest change needs to happen on the inside, for all of us. When we remember why we got into our careers in the first place—whether it was because our minds loved the thrill of developing new ideas, or our hearts were driven to help others—we’ll recognize that what gets us up in the morning isn’t the drive to create more deliverables. It’s the drive to create more impact. And when we’re able to refocus our efforts there, there’s no limit to what we’ll be able to achieve.