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When is too ‘creative’ too much?

When considering web design and communication in general, I’m wary of the ‘c’ word. People who claim that their ‘point of difference’ is to be creative tend in my cynical experience to mean one of two things:

1. Either they are woolly thinkers who try to dress everything in extraneous and distracting fancy dress to distract us from their inability to think and communicate clearly about essentials.


2. They have previously worked in advertising.

Usually both, now I think about it a little more.

The key indicator that a communication product is ‘creative’, is that they make you do all the work to work out what they are really telling you.

The website or billboard or print ad or TV ad will be about something mundane like financial services, but you’ll have to play a guessing game to work it out, because it seems to be about fish/birds/monkeys/flying cars or about taking grandma for a walk in a wheelchair or getting someone flowers or children in danger in a war zone.

I’m writing exhaustingly long sentences because thinking about these damn things is exhausting. People who think this way are HAPPY if all you can remember is children in danger in a war zone, even if the ad was about travel agents or milk… or financial services.

This problem is at its worst when the communication product is a website, because web users have a real aversion to needless thinking. There’s a ton of research that supports the idea that making customers at a transactional site think for a split second about which menu header to click can cost a business tens of thousands of dollars.

So what do we make of a web consultancy that offers visitors a first point of contact on a splash page (just ignore how stupid that is for a moment, as that’s not my point here) which offers them two clickable ‘jet plane’ jelly sweets – one red, one green – and tells them that some bogus percentage of visitors ‘choose the red plane’? (Please note that the percentage varies each time you refresh the page – so it really is bogus.)

At this point I ask you to think again about the last paragraph.

This outfit seriously think we might hire them as some sort of  web/advertising/brand creation consultancy, and they offer us a splash page with a frankly meaningless bit of snake oil vending about red and green sweets, demanding we choose one or other before we are even worthy to peruse further evidence of their alleged ‘hire-ability’.


Having an ‘attitude’ is one thing, but making people evaluate your frankly meaningless brand pitch for even a tenth of a second across such a patently non-choice ‘decision’ as this, has gotta be the online marketing equivalent of that ‘Kick Me’ sign your sister stuck on your back when you were seven.

Why does this matter, and what does it tell us about ‘creative consultancies’?

Well in my opinion it tells us that the communication product they will produce with their clients’ money is firstly all about THEM, the agency, and their cleverness, and by implication, about their unfeasibly large invoices.

Secondly it’s about the client and their brand, and how everyone needs to be thinking about that brand all the time, even if they don’t want or need any services it might represent.

And only thirdly (if at all) is it about you and me, the poor saps who are trying to work out what it is they are really telling us and whether we (frankly) give a damn about any of it.

The ‘creative’ approach works like Andrew Loog Oldham, who famously said a propos of the Rolling Stones – whom he was managing at the time – ‘no publicity is bad publicity’.

The creative approach is to get you thinking about their product at any cost and at all times: effectively – ‘no customer attention is bad attention’.

This is the opposite of the user-centred approach, which begins from the principle that making your users think more than they have to is wasting their time – and since the user is king; wasting their time is likely to get your head cut off – and not to earn you a knighthood.

The user-centred approach can also be genuinely creative, in finding economical ways to communicate complex information clearly and pleasingly. This is creativity of quite a different order, however. It is audience-regarding and goal-oriented creativity – not self-regarding and solipsistic creativity.

The key question is ‘communicating complex information clearly and pleasingly to whom?’

Not to the agency getting plated with gold to do the communicating. Not to the CEO of the client company – who knows all this stuff about his company anyway, and who is already gold-plated himself. But pleasing to you – the user – the poor sap who wants to buy milk, or financial services, or even help poor children in war zones – and who needs to interface with a communication product in order to achieve these goals.

I often interview real users about their needs and objectives in cyberspace, and real users seldom cite ‘solving puzzles’ or ‘playing guessing games’ as their top priority. They’ll play Tetris, or Blokus or Champions’ League Trivial Pursuit if they want to do that. But if they’re looking for information about goods or services, they want it to be clear, easy to use, easy to understand and easy to remember.

I don’t think being ‘creative’ trumps any of this. On the contrary, if you look at it a bit more deeply you’ll see that it’s rather like the Emperor’s new clothes – or as they say in Texas: ‘all hat and no cattle’.

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