Are KPIs Killing Creativity?

Are KPIs Killing Creativity?
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It’s easy to look at creativity as laced with mystery and intrigue – a gift from a muse. But is a mind free of limitations the key to creative genius? How truly creative are creative agencies when the working process is ruled by key performance indicators?

Architect Frank Gehry, best known for building the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles freaked when he was issued a brief to design a house with zero constraints. Gehry is said to have questioned himself and his life’s purpose when faced with the challenge. About constraints, he told Forbes magazine, “I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Constraints, like KPIs mightn’t seem conducive to the execution of a creative project, but perhaps it’s those limitations that fuel the most innovative output in the industry.

“When we are kids we are taught that there is no right or wrong when it comes to imagination but as we grow up and become ‘professionals’ we find out that isn’t entirely true; we have to answer to stakeholders, clients, targets and legal… inevitably this put parameters around our creative output,” says Droga5’s head of content, Holly Alexander.

“Without KPIs, advertising is art. Art is awesome, but it’s not the same thing. And if you want to be doing art and create without a series of goals around what success looks like, you’re probably in the wrong industry,” says Matt Delprado, creative director at Lowe Profero Sydney.

Alexander says: “The creative process benefits from having some boundaries to keep things moving in a clear direction.”

Contrary to how some see the creative process – as one with no rules and regulations – these days, the greatest work is often born from rigidity and enabled by technology.

“Technology gives us much more feedback on creativity than ever before, it allows us to deliver innovative ideas more dynamically and reach our audience more effectively than before,” says Michael Scruby, founder at outdoor media buying platform start-up Site Tour.

Scruby’s favourite example of creative work constrained by KPIs but enabled by technology is a recent British Airways campaign ‘Look Up’.

Earlier this year, British Airways issued creative agency OlgilvyOne a brief to create a campaign that highlighted the breadth of the airline’s destinations. “One of the KPIs was to drive people to their site, a special ‘Look Up’ website. They also had to implement the hashtag #LookUp to generate buzz on social media,” says Scruby.

The ads were executed on prominent London digital billboards featuring a little tyke pointing only at British Airways planes when they flew overhead.

The campaign won a Grand Prix in the direct category at the Cannes Lions.

“The confirmation of the campaign’s creative success was the award it won at Cannes; it was a brilliant concept and hit all the KPIs,” says Scruby.

“The whole idea behind advertising is using constraints to drive creative thinking to hit the right person at the right time with the right message in the right place,” he adds.

Lowe Profero’s Delprado believes good KPIs can action creative thinking but warns those that are written badly can hinder innovation. He says: “Sometimes KPIs are written because it will be easy to measure and not because it’s the most appropriate measurement of success. This is particularly problematic in digital where there’s so much data out there that we base our things to measure on the metrics Google Analytics gives us, instead of really thinking through the things that are important to creative success.”

With data aplenty, it’s easy to make assumptions about the audience you’re targeting which can sometimes give the creative project a bum steer. Delprado says: “Increasingly as brand plays are done on digital channels, measuring the number of seconds that someone is looking at the page is not a very useful metric.”

From an ROI point of view, Delprado can see how the amount of time someone spends on a page might mean engagement, and that using those analytics is more cost effective than spending big on research, but still, it concerns him. “I worry that we make up the results we like to hear, rather than really knowing what’s happened. I think there should be more brand tracking on that level, I think  we should be asking how people feel about the brand before engagement with the campaign and how they feel months later after the campaign.”

Scruby firmly believes KPIs enable creativity, but admits at times they can be too narrow. “It would take a bold CMO or marketing manager to come in say ‘actually we’re going to change our measures’ and push some boundaries.” Scruby explains that CMOs play within the current guidelines or just do what’s worked before. “That doesn’t allow anyone to get expressive and think outside the square,” he says.

As the ways in which we measure creativity in advertising shifts, Delprado argues there is always room to challenge how that creative work is achieved. He says: “We should start looking at new channels we’re not familiar with. Our target audience of millenials happen to be living onTumblr and Snapchat and nobody is really taking advantage of those platforms very well. This is mostly because we don’t use these channels and because we’re too busy playing within the guidelines we’ve set up ourselves.”

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