Why great creative is more important than ever

Every year we all have the opportunity to dive into the creative pool of Cannes Lions, the international festival celebrating creativity in communications, entertainment, design and tech. Like me, most people do it via the festival’s excellent website.

No matter; it’s still an exhilarating splash, and this year’s annual plunge has me convinced that, in the “Engagement Economy,” great creative is more important than ever. Let me explain.

I believe that Apple invented high-tech marketing back in the ’80s. And with Steve Jobs at the helm, it was all about creativity — in messages, design and production. In the early ’90s, I cut my marketing teeth working with Jobs at Next, and then rejoined Apple, where I was manager of consumer advertising.

Over the ensuing years, my faith in great creative to produce something valuable and inspiring has never flagged.

But the marketing game has changed considerably since then, specifically with the advent of online channels and the almost unlimited data that we marketers can now leverage.

In some quarters, this has led to creativity being sidelined, or at least being knocked askew on its pedestal, as the scientific side of marketing has grown in importance.

Bad mistake, because while you need both art and science in marketing, creativity is the killer ingredient that drives marketing effectiveness.

‘Thumb-stopping creativity’

In today’s world of all things digital, the demands on people’s time are more intense than ever. As marketers, we can shout, loudly and often, and hope someone hears us over all the background noise.

Or we can capture people’s attention through truly creative work, and start engaging with them in a meaningful fashion by appealing to their hearts.

It’s a matter of value versus volume. Easy choice, don’t you think?

Cheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, who spoke at Cannes Lions this year, would seem to think so. Here she is, quoted on the festival’s website:

For Sandberg, “Organizations often don’t move quickly enough.” People are spending most of their time on digital — but for creative teams, “usually it’s outdoor, then print, and mobile is often just added in the last 10 minutes.” This is particularly misguided, she explained, since “a natively mobile ad grabs your attention in a couple of seconds. We call it ‘thumb-stopping creativity.’ It communicates the brand very quickly and you measure results, not seconds. Taking advantage of that power is so important.”

What is great creative?

Great creative always starts with strategy. Here’s an area where all that scientific data comes into play as it’s mined for insights into what the customer wants, and what you can provide. Essentially, you need to be relevant to be engaging.

A great example of this is the recent joint campaign of Airbnb and the Art Institute of Chicago, constructed around a meticulous recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom as portrayed in one of his most famous paintings.

Many Airbnb prospects, myself included, are looking for more than just convenient, cost-effective digs. We also want a unique and immersive experience of place. In a splendid display of relevance, the ad speaks beautifully to this desire, while also building interest in the Art Institute’s special Van Gogh exhibit.

In addition to being relevant, a campaign or ad must be bold and take risks to engage most fully. People like the jolt that comes from boldness, bravery and risk. It’s not a data thing; it’s a chemical thing.

You don’t have to look farther than the “Fearless Girl” campaign, produced by State Street Global Advisors to honor International Women’s Day, that captivated so many people earlier this year (and bugged a few, too) with its boldness.

Appearing one night in the middle of Wall Street, the sculpture of a courageous young girl, arms akimbo, staring down the famous Charging Bull statue, became an instant media and internet sensation.

The ad and story around the statue not only went viral faster than a bull market, but the campaign also has some serious legs as the statue continues to be a much-photographed tourist attraction.

And how well did the combo of relevance and boldness work for State Street Global Advisors? The firm’s SHE Fund, which invests in companies with women executives, experienced a 384 percent increase in average daily trading volume in the first three days following the campaign’s launch. Let’s hear it for Girl Power.

Celebrate great work and its impact

You can find many, if not all, 2017 Cannes Lions award winners on YouTube. Viewing these ads is instructive, inspiring and often just plain fun. But don’t let your commitment to creativity stop here. Act on it, consistently.

In the age of martech, do not abandon creativity. It means more than ever


Things 3 Is Great at Helping You Get the Job Done

Things 3 Is Great at Helping You Get the Job Done


  • Things 3 is a “getting things done” app
  • It’s available on iPhone, iPad, and Mac
  • It’s expensive, but the design is excellent and it works very well

Every single day, we find ourselves saddled with countless small tasks to complete, errands to run, mails to send, and in general — things to do. Almost always, we end up forgetting one thing or another and that wastes a lot of time. We’ve tried a lot of different ways to avoid this — a to-do list in a notebook, basic reminder apps, and even a proper “getting things done” (GTD) app in Todoist.

For various reasons, all of these approaches have failed us eventually. We kept forgetting to write things down in our notebook, Apple’s Reminders app was too basic, and we aren’t big fans of Todoist’s design – or its subscription model. Things weren’t looking good, at least until Cultured Code released Things 3.

Cultured Code’s design prowess is well-known and the company has done a stellar job yet again with Things 3. This writer been using the app on iPhone and Mac for over a month and it’s certainly become a vital part of his life.

When you first fire up Things 3 on any platform, you’re going to notice how clean it looks. You’ll see “Today” or “Upcoming” or the title of your project in a large font size right at the top and all of your tasks below. There’s just the right amount of gap between the heading and your tasks, and between different tasks themselves. It doesn’t feel like these are sticking to each other and it definitely doesn’t feel like there’s a massive chasm between these either.

things 3 iphone projects Things 3

The way Cultured Code has used white space is commendable as it keeps the design from feeling cluttered. Ideally, a GTD app should remind you about pending tasks, but if it’s cluttered it starts to feel intimidating and then we feel there’s a high chance of people abandoning the app altogether. Not with Things 3, where every design choice feels deliberate and tastefully executed.

On the iPhone, Things 3 is a pretty straightforward app. It lets you add tasks, create projects, and you can even use the share sheet to add tasks from other apps. If you’re browsing the Web or watching videos online, you can send the link straight to Things 3 via the share sheet. You can even share your tasks and checklists to other apps.

One of the best features of Things 3 on iPhone is its 3D Touch implementation. If you have an iPhone 6S or a newer iPhone, you can hard press the Things 3 icon hard to reveal a neat widget where you can mark up to two tasks as complete. You can also use 3D Touch to create a new task, jump to the Today page, and jump to Quick Find (for searching within the app).

Things 3 for Mac

We love using Things 3 on iPhone, but the Mac app is where it really shines. Not only have the developers used the extra screen space very well, but they’ve also added a bunch of small features that wouldn’t be possible on iPhone. For instance, pressing Ctrl + option + space in certain apps such as Safari or Mail, opens a Things 3 pop-up with a link to the website or email added. You can quickly add webpages or emails to your to-do list via this shortcut.

things 3 mac logbook Things 3

Similarly, you can use the Ctrl + space shortcut in any app to add a task manually to Things 3. When you set a reminder for a task, the notification stays on your Mac’s screen until you either snooze or dismiss it. We feel any good GTD app should be good at nagging you until you get the job done, and based on our experience of using it to manage work tasks, Things 3 is good at this.

The developers have created neat tutorial projects to familiarise new users with the app and all its features. We found these extremely useful and learned about several advanced features that have now become a part of our daily workflow.

When you mark a task complete, it changes the font colour from black to grey for a couple of seconds, before moving to the the Logbook (where all completed tasks go). This allows you time to uncheck the task if you’ve accidentally marked it complete. When you create a project, the icon is a circle which slowly fills up like a pie chart as you complete tasks under that project. Lots of small touches like this make Things 3’s design feel tastefully designed.

Cultured Code uses its own Things Cloud to sync your tasks across devices. It works just fine and we had no issues whatsoever with syncing tasks and projects across devices.

things 3 mac quick entry Things 3

At the moment, Things 3 doesn’t let you attach images or other files to your tasks. This feature would allow us to attach screenshots or important documents to our tasks, which would help a lot while researching for stories.

It also doesn’t allow you to create repeating reminders on an hourly basis. You can create daily, weekly, or monthly repeating reminders but not hourly ones. That makes it less useful if you want to set reminders for drinking water or to remind yourself to stop working nonstop and take a break.

Things 3 is not for everyone. It’s available only on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac. You need to buy it separately on iPhone (Rs. 800), iPad (Rs. 1,600), and Mac (Rs. 4,000), so it’s definitely not cheap. But if you value good design and you need a GTD app for your Apple devices, Things 3 is an absolute must-have.


Insights from statistical analysis of great (and not-great) literature

Ben Blatt’s Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing takes advantage of the fact that so much literature has been digitized, allowing him to run statistical analyses on writers, old and new, and make both fun and meaningful inferences about the empirical nature of writing.

Blatt’s book covers everything from James Joyce’s use of exclamation points (1,105 !’s per 100,000 words) to the most distinctive words appearing in erotica whose authors hail from New York City (“subway, popsicle, senator, butthole, museum, landlord, thrusted, Jacuzzi, sin, and shrugs”).

Dan Piepenbring’s review of Mauve highlights the implicit social insights that can be gleaned from this sort of analysis (“Male authors are far likelier to write ‘she interrupted’ than ‘he interrupted'”), and also the way that the book made him feel about his writing.

“The written word and the world of numbers should not be kept apart,” Blatt writes, and I think he’s right; what’s frustrating is that no one has yet figured out how they might productively collaborate. Like last year’s “The Bestseller Code,” which described an algorithm that predicted the plots of popular novels, “Mauve” wagers that the “digital humanities,” as they’ve uneasily come to be known, can instruct audiences outside of the academy. The book’s finest moments prove that they can—but to what end? Blatt argues that his work is “not an attempt to ‘engineer’ art as much as a way to understand it”: “If you were a band in the 1960s you would want to know how the Beatles were recording their songs.” Maybe so, but is that really what this book professes to teach? Knowing the rate at which Ringo hits his snare drum does not a Beatle make.

Reading “Mauve,” I began to imagine two duelling schools of authorship, both motivated by statistics. In one, writers would cultivate their tics, inhabiting themselves so thoroughly that to encounter them on the page would be like finding their footprints in wet cement. In the other, writers would aspire to defy the data, styling their prose with such intricate, chameleonic grace that no statistician could betray their identity. A few decades ago, the advent of the word processor made it easier than ever to revise on the fly; it also made it easy to dwell on one sentence ad infinitum, gilding the lily where once one would’ve advanced to the next thought. The glut of data is another mixed blessing—past a certain point, writers would do better in a state of blissful ignorance. Otherwise, they might end up with work like my ninth-grade term papers, mannered and overwrought.

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing [Ben Blatt/Simon & Schuster]

The Heretical Things Statistics Tell Us About Fiction [Dan Piepenbring/New Yorker]


Great Teaching And The ‘Escalation Of Insights’


Owen Fiss, the longtime Yale law professor, has a new book out. Called Pillars of Justice, it devotes a chapter each to thirteen lawyers who influenced his thinking (and not incidentally, also left their marks on the world). I don’t know Fiss, and I don’t know much about legal history, but the portraits he paints contain rich insight. They have as much to say about great leadership and inspired teaching—and the crucial role of asking questions in both—as about the evolving legal doctrine of the civil rights era.

Take, for example, his account of how he was mentored by Harry Kalven, a leading light at the University of Chicago Law School—an apprenticeship that started when Fiss joined its faculty in the summer of 1968. As Fiss describes their interactions, they always began with a question, which grew into an “intense, all-absorbing” dialogue as the two walked through a nearby perennial flower garden and along the Chicago lakefront. “His method was conversation,” Fiss writes of Kalven:

“He would manage to find in the words of the apprentice glimmers of insight, which he would then restate in terms so eloquent and profound that they deepened understanding and encouraged further inquiry and comment. The apprentice felt obliged to say more, to think harder, to look at the problem from a new perspective. The conversation became an escalation of insights. That was the core of my apprenticeship with Harry. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and it revealed the special qualities of the master.”

Fiss concludes that “Harry Kalven was a genius, a completely original intelligence.” Whether the two of them were discussing a recent Supreme Court decision, a political event, or the future of legal education, he says, “My view of the world would almost always change.”

Reading praise like this for a mentor is always uplifting, and for many of us, it raises its own question, too: Who have been my greatest teachers, and what made them so special? For me, the name J. Bonner Ritchie comes immediately to mind, and for similar reasons. Ritchie was my mentor while I earned my master’s degree, and, as I’ve put it elsewhere, “he singlehandedly rewrote the maps in my mind by constantly confronting my worldviews.” He was a world-class questioner. Another of his students once said about Ritchie, “There is no question he dare not ask.” (This was in contrast to another faculty member, about whom it was said, “There is no question he dare not answer.”)

Perhaps you’ve had your own great teacher who, on reflection, you realize had a knack for “escalating insights” by asking questions—and even better, encouraging you to ask better ones yourself. If so, you may be as appalled as I am at the large body of research that shows how little generative questioning goes on in the average education setting—whether we’re talking about grade school, high school, college, or workplace training sessions. James T. Dillon of the University of California, Riverside, studied this phenomenon several decades ago. He observed that students who give voice to their curiosity get all sorts of negative reactions from both teachers and classmates. The lesson they take away from the experience is “Don’t ask questions.” Scholars monitoring other classrooms and arenas of learning and decision making consistently come to the same conclusion: Creative inquiry is an innate human behavior that gets actively suppressed and shut down. And thus children grow into adults who always dare to answer but never dare to question.

Owen Fiss makes clear that, as well as knowing his share of inspirational thinkers, he has also experienced the corrosive effects of bad teaching. He tells the cringe-inducing story of a professor in his first year at Harvard Law, back when a class of about 125 students included only three or four women:

“Now and then students volunteered a comment or posed a question, but for the most part Leach conducted his classes by calling on students to recite the facts of a case or answer a question he put to them. At the beginning of the course, though, Leach announced that he would not call on any of the women students on a regular basis. Instead he would designate one or two ‘Ladies’ Days,’ during which the women students, and only the women students, would be called on.”

To this day, it rankles with Fiss that he and his classmates didn’t object on the spot to this obnoxious marginalization. Instead, “we said nothing, not a note of disapproval, not even a whimper.” If Kalven’s effect on his students was an escalation of insights, then this man’s was just as surely a stultification of them. I suspect it’s no coincidence that the other aspect Fiss recalls about him is his stunted form of questioning.

Teachers (and leaders) who make good use of questions—the kinds that challenge assumptions and draw others into intense, all-absorbing dialogues—produce proteges who don’t hesitate to defy traditional thinking themselves. Whether it’s an outdated preconception that needs to be confronted, or an outright prejudice, the person who rises to the occasion will be someone who was a student once, and who learned to question.