If you’re a creative professional, you may have noticed a bothersome trend. In an effort to reduce expenses, clients are getting creative with the ways they deconstruct projects, bid them out and re-assemble the final product.
As a result, some of your work is becoming commoditized, broken into pieces and performed by someone other than you. There are lower-cost, dubious-value graphic artists, Web designers, social media marketers, SEO specialists, content developers, programmers, freelance writers and others waiting in the wings to snap up pieces of projects.
I’m not arguing that this is a particularly intelligent, productive or encouraging trend. I’m just saying that it’s happening in a number of settings, and, in many cases, you’re complicit. Yes you.
Let me discuss a few examples to illustrate my point.
Deconstruction and the Road to Mediocrity
Software developers used to scope, design and test a piece code from start to finish. That’s not always the case nowadays. Outsourced, off-shore software testing is becoming more and more common. Specialized shops that test applications and the platforms they run on (like testing a new Web app on every conceivable phone, OS and browser combination) eliminate this task from a typical coder’s project. There’s a company in Austin, Texas that’s doing this with great success. Think of it as global specialization – where the “assembly line” is decoupled, sent to multiple specialists, then reassembled before launch.
You may have noticed the SEO copywriting trend, as well. For better or worse, companies are farming out articles to writing sweat shops and instructing them to assemble articles that are optimized for specific keywords (including headline and subhead instructions for keyword repetition). Then they send the completed article to a professional writer for editing, fact checking and re-writing.
As a professional writer, I find the practice ludicrous. It’s a process that’s flawed, spammy and basically ass-backwards. But I can’t deny that it’s happening. Shameful admission: one of my clients in Eastern Europe pays me to write headlines and subheads for articles they’ve developed (they identify the keywords they need highlighted, and I try to make it work). Some of the articles are professionally written and some are atrocious. I flag the bad ones and have them re-write them – by myself or another professional writer.
The trend is similar to the software development one. Publishers are attempting to decouple production and then reassemble the pieces. OnDemand Media’s Pluck is one example of this kind of low-cost, assembly line publishing.
With these types of approaches, some value is lost (maybe not so much with the software development example). You may have seen similar trends with your projects. Does the following sound familiar? A client asks you to produce a site, some graphic art or some copy that’s just like “competitor X’s site.” The marketing director identifies someone else’s work that they like, and they encourage you to paraphrase, emulate or copy it. “Just make it like theirs, ‘borrow’ from it and you [as the creative] won’t have to do so much work,” they say. The result is unoriginal copy or design. My advice is strap on your Pumas and run away from these clients as fast as you can.
The point is, you can see, taste and smell the loss of value in these types of projects. Think about all those India-looking templated sites out there. They’re sterile. You know them when you see them. The treatments are flat, the colors predictable, and the layouts pure boilerplate. Some are worse than others, of course. There are, however, some nice WordPress templates that are produced by very talented designers and coders (and SquareSpace ones and Tumblr.. many others, I’m sure).
Similar problems occur when people take short cuts with photography. How about those bland “business people at work photos?” Earnest looking professionals glare into the lens. They wear trendy blue and khaki, and they always seem to be in these scrubbed, gleaming Formica white rooms. There are dozens of them on iStockPhoto, and they pop up all over the Web. Anyone can get that stuff. Anyone can produce it. It’s a commodity.
Your Talent and Real-Time Creativity is Your Trump Card
So your career is under attack. Every day sub-contractors attempt to deconstruct creative work and farm pieces of it out. Seth Godin talks about this in his book Linchpin. In a previous era, the strategy was applied to automobile construction, for example. Henry Ford developed detailed assembly processes that could be carried out by very specialized, low-skilled laborers along the line. These days creative work can be made into an assembly line without borders… without a building.
Where does that leave you? It’s easy, really. You scamper back to value. You focus on originality and core competency. Your creative work, your artistry is what wins. You can beat a monkey on a typewriter. Your brilliance in the here and now beats any templated mash-up that a sweat shop can produce. That’s what brings the real dough. That’s what wins today’s contracts.
The companies and clients that don’t want that type of talent are settling for mediocrity. They will be lost in the sea of noise. Their ads will not stand out, their white papers will not be downloaded, and people will land on their sites and get that ‘oh this was designed by low-level goons in Eastern Europe’ feeling.
So, if you’re a designer you need to be the one who pays attention to typography, usability, color choice and very specific business requirements. You have to listen. And, you have to find the clients who communicate their uniqueness, their goals and their fears directly to you. Incorporate that into your designs, then collaborate with the Web development team, the writer, the photographer. Don’t be afraid to work with difficult people. Don’t be afraid to challenge your client. Argue with them (not argumentatively but in a Socratic way) with the fears, benefits, goals and aspirations of the company in mind.
If you’re a blogger or a ghost writer for blogs, stop regurgitating the messages of others. Stop chasing the link deals and trying to spam your way into Digg mentions, StumbleUpons, etc. Promote your best, most unique ideas – even if it means taking a day or week off. Yes, you need to produce content consistently. . but you’ve got to rise above the noise and say something useful and unique each time you publish. Or else.. your days are numbered.
Another Warning: Legitimate Technology Trends Will Strip You Naked
This should probably be another article.. but, heck, I’m going to put it in here, because it closely parallels the “deconstruction” trend.
If you’re a marketer, you need to realize that subjective, off-the-cuff analysis of markets is a vanishing practice. Creative, “gee I like this, let’s run with it” moments are gone. David Ogilvy and Claude Hopkins did their best to kill it off, but it’s still the fall back position for lazy marketing departments.
Here’s where technology is taking a bite out of marketing departments. The following trends are eating away at staid practices:
Analytics beats any whim or subjective position you have. Yes – I know – if you’re creating art, then you can be content with your own subjective analysis. But, it’s rare that those of us in the business world can produce art without being accountable for results. At some point, you have to sell something (even artists need to fill galleries).
So these five techie developments show us what sells, what gets clicked, what’s working, what the crowds think. Testing (Claude Hopkins, Ogilvy- style) is more relevant than ever!
One of the buzz phrases going around marketing circles is contextual sentiment. This is what Facebook is up to with their “Like” buttons all over the Web. Fact is, you could do this with some sophisticated software previously. If you run scraped keyword streams from Twitter or Facebook through an sentiment analysis tool, you can see all kinds of actionable information. For example, let’s say you launch a new soda flavor. You can quickly understand consumer sentiment by monitoring channels like Twitter and Facebook. At the root, it’s the transformation of unstructured data into actionable information. It can be used for all kinds of scenarios – public relations troubleshooting, customer service, R&D, polling/sampling opinion (without the focus group), product development and more.
Big brands are already integrating this “social media” sampling technique into their Business Intelligence (BI) solutions. One of the big benefits is that they get a clear indication of sentiment and the “reality on the streets.” In the past, they had to rely on focus groups with preconceptions and gamed reporting from their own internal departments (sales, finance, product development, etc.).
Bringing it All Back Around to You – The Creative
Creatives in every line of work – Web development, art, writing, publishing, etc. – need to consider these trends carefully. From my perspective this trend looks like a boon to creatives. But, to many organizations, it could mean that some of their services will go away. You can’t consult, for example, if your consulting guidance is based on premises that are counter to factual Web analytics. You may have to integrate these new technologies into your offerings.
How is it a boon? Creative matters even more today than ever before. People need you to test out ideas, push them out of their comfort zones and try new things. Companies need to round up whatever data and research exists then hand off projects to creatives that get it. Then you test… then you commit to what works. That’s a good recipe.
What’s become a commodity is the big agency’s powerful research and testing groups. They’ll be moving to new technologies and techniques. But these new methods should be fairly low cost. You may not need an army of people to pull it off. And as information becomes more available at a lower cost, you’ll see small agile creative firms making moves.
Some Extended Thoughts
Everyone has access to this now. This new world is here. Soooooo….
The information you have at your fingertips – your information tool box – is becoming irrelevant. There’s plenty of free information out there that describes what you know, best practices, tips, tools, strategies and so forth. That stuff is being commoditized. Dan Pink goes into this in detail in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. “McKinsey & Co. estimates that in the United States, only 30% of job growth now comes from algorithmic work, while 70% comes from heuristic work,” writes Pink. (That algorithmic work is the non-creative stuff – the process work that can be duplicated in far flung locations.) “A key reason routine work can be outsourced or automated; artistic, empathic, non-routine, work generally cannot.”
Experience matters. Value matters. A creative, original filter matters.
What to Do? – Creatives, Get Back to Basics!
How do you win in this wild new world of shifting marketing and production trends? You focus on the key differentiators. Seth Godin talks about this a lot in Linchpin. You’ve got to continue to develop strong relationships. Stellar customer service, a sparkling attitude, personality, and your underlying creativity and uniqueness are the keys. Execution wins business as well – think about speed of execution, shipping on time/on deadline, and delivering a consistent, quality product. Of course you need to deliver value, meaning quality, differentiation and uniqueness, mind-boggling star power, and ‘something extra.’
In short, you need to become more remarkable now.
What do you think about this discussion and these trends? Are you seeing the same things I’m seeing? If so, what are your strategies for combating these trends or adapting to them? Am I delusional or off-base here? Please comment below.