The Great Divide – Strategy vs Creative

The Great Divide or: Why Strategy and Creative are Two Sides of the Same Coin

I lied. In the title? I lied. But let me explain… if I haven’t spoiled your faith in me already.

Two sides, one coin. It’s a turn of phrase we’re all familiar with. Two seemingly disparate things that make up different facets of a single whole. I doubt it would take a whole article for me to convince you that this is the case for strategy and creative. Both play fundamental roles in the creation of advertising, marketing and communications. But what the analogy fails to capture is just how intertwined they really are.

We talk a lot about how great creative ideas can come from anywhere or anyone. It’s something that’s hard to dispute. The potential for creativity, after all, is ingrained in all of us, no matter how practised (or naturally predisposed) we are to express it. The same holds true for strategy, too. The thinking analytically – assessing situations, making deductions and coming to conclusions – is something we do every single day.

So often though, particularly in business, we treat creativity as a fun privilege and strategy as the serious work (sorry strategists). It’s the difference between the excitement you felt when it was time for art class versus the dread of another looming period of math.* But it’s a dangerous point of view that not only undermines the depth of thought and consideration that goes into effective creative thinking, but also the bright-eyed exploration and creativity at the root of smart strategy.

* I fully recognize that there are bound to be some out there for whom the reverse was true, but I’d wager my first born that those who did fall outside that norm were made to feel it. (“You like math? That’s weird… Go cry on your bologna at your own lunch table, nerd.”) Maybe less true now, but I grew up during a mean time.

A tale of nouns and adjectives

Where the distinction between creative and strategy is often at its widest (and most dangerous) is when they’re treated simply as outputs. Too often we fall into the trap of talking about creative and strategy as nouns – finite, tangible products that are produced, packaged and sold. We talk about having “great creative” or “smart strategy,” which belies their crucial, symbiotic relationship.

Creative and strategy aren’t outputs, they’re elements – equally essential, interwoven components of a larger whole we call advertising. They can’t live happily (or effectively) without each other.

So, what happens when we shift from thinking about “strategy” and “creative” as nouns and frame them instead as adjectives. Rather than making strategy or creative, we become strategic and creative. Lends a whole new diversity of meaning, and a much wider application, too. It demonstrates that they’re tools to be leveraged, rather than products. After all, no client is truly after strategy or creative; they’re looking to solve their business challenges. And these are tools that can be applied to virtually every aspect of a business from outputs like advertising, all the way to administration and accounting.

In fact, the most powerful application of each is when they’re combined – looking at creative through a strategic lens, or strategy from a place of creativity.

Creatively Strategic

No self-respecting strategist worth their copy of [insert Seth Godin book] relies solely on practised processes or boilerplate branding exercises. Every industry is distinct. And every player within it has their own unique set of challenges and opportunities, strengths and flaws.

So often we label strategist personalities as the analytical thinkers. That’s the science and creative is the art. But the best strategists are more like chefs than scientists. They start by shopping for the freshest, most seasonal, local and delicious ingredients. In this case, that means gathering inputs, conducting discovery sessions, and digging deep into research and industry trends.

But how you prepare those ingredients is what really counts. How you carve them up, dissect them, then pair them into clever combinations that excite the senses. It takes a great deal of creative thinking to identify the choicest morsels and most impactful essences from raw ingredients. And then there’s the task of re-forming them into a cohesive, meaningful and, most of all, useful result.

All of the best briefs I’ve encountered – the most powerful brand strategies, customer journeys and guidepost sessions – come from the nexus of creativity and strategy. They’ve not only resulted in better inputs for the development of campaigns or other materials, but resulted in work that’s both more innovative and more efficient. When there’s creativity embedded in the source material, it creates a strong foundation on which to build.

Strategically Creative

Strategic thinking is integral throughout the creative process. It informs the concepts, ideas and angles that drive the work. But it also plays a vital role in the craft of the work itself.

Take composition, for example – the way objects in a design are laid out to draw the eye around a certain piece. It creates information hierarchy, drives visual flow and even affects the emotional reaction to a particular design. It’s a large part of why designers are so protective of their white space. And for good reason.

Composition is a fundamental component of good design, and especially crucial in advertising, where design has to drive action, not just look good. It’s a very strategic design component, too. Placing the headline here versus there. Using this colour on one element and not on another. These are strategic decisions made with purpose: to take the viewer on a journey, make them feel something and compel them to action. And it can be amazingly effective.

That’s just one example of the convergence of strategy in creative. But it’s ingrained at nearly every step. Any time a designer pens an object, or a writer types a word, it’s crafted, considered and finessed to create the exact strategic impact required to hit the objective.

One coin, one side

Strategy and creative are inextricably tied – not just in marketing and advertising, but in life. Our brains, after all, comprise two hemispheres, each predisposed to either logical or creative thinking. That gives every individual the capacity for both modes of thought. And often, we undertake them concurrently. Creativity frequently (and necessarily) seeps into the realm of strategy, and strategic thinking nearly always leads to more inspired and effective creative.

So, next time someone asks what kind of thinker you are? Just tell them to flip a coin.