Filling the creativity gap
Solving modern business problems requires creativity at every level
Can you create breakthrough innovation without creative leaders to guide the way? Our research points to a decline in C-Suite creative skills that could lead to a stagnation of ideas—just when rapidly evolving market conditions demand transformative new solutions.
“All music sounds the same these days.” It is a lament repeated by each generation to the one following. It even comes with a standard reaction perfected by the younger generation: an exaggerated eye-roll and the speaker typically labeled an old curmudgeon, a square, or, to use the vocabulary of the day, a boomer. As any old curmudgeon will tell you, his generation is right. In this case at least, it just might be. There is scientific evidence that pop music has become increasingly formulaic and homogenous over time.
Researchers found that over the last 50 years, popular music has become more homogenized in terms of timbre (i.e., sound color, texture, or tone quality) and pitch (i.e., harmonic content). In short, pop songs really have started to sound the same, or at least progressively similar.
The results are predictable. All the growth in the music industry is coming from old songs and aging, or deceased, musicians. The 200 most popular new songs now regularly account for less than 5% of total streams, half of what it was three years ago. An industry that could be a shining example of creativity relies on old ways of thinking in a world beset with new channels and challenges. Instead of meeting these new challenges with innovative ideas, pop music is becoming increasingly commoditized.
What got us here won’t take us much further
Commoditized creativity isn’t an issue limited to music. We see it in other artistic industries like film (hopefully, you like superhero movies and reboots), and we also see it in business. On the business side, agencies continue to be central to creative execution for many organizations. However, conventional agencies focusing primarily on advertising and serving multiple clients using a standardized approach can leave creative output feeling canned and unoriginal.
We’ve also reached a point when a traditional definition of “creativity” may not go far enough to meet the challenges of today’s business world. Marketing has come a long way in a short time, and creativity should evolve along with it. Creativity is no longer limited to advertising and messaging. Instead, a modern, connected version of creativity should encompass the way entire businesses think, operate, and organize themselves. And the timing of this evolution is critical. Research now shows that brands demonstrating creativity grow 2.6 times faster than their less-creative peers.
New technology combined with cultural, political, and pandemic-related shifts are changing established ways of working and growing efficiently. New problems require new solutions and a new way of thinking. Creativity offers a path forward, but creativity could be receding at the time it’s needed most.
A growing mandate
For years, chief marketing officers (CMOs) have recognized the need to be organizational growth drivers. For example, a 2016 study from Deloitte and the CMO Council revealed that 68% of CMOs believe acting as a growth driver is a top expectation of senior management and the board.
Several years on, Deloitte set out to understand if CMOs have delivered on this growth expectation. Our analysis combined more than a decade's worth of global company profiles and job postings to determine how the CMO role responded. We found that CMOs no longer have the option of driving growth and that this mandate is altering the composition and skills of both the C-suite and marketing teams, potentially leaving creativity behind.
Deloitte Digital’s Creativity Gap research is based on the analysis of global company profiles and job postings including:
This company and role data is supplemented by Deloitte’s 2022 Global Marketing Trends research, which is based, in part, on:
In the C-suite
In the boardroom
Role replacement or role evolution? It’s complicated
Taken in isolation, these changes in the C-suite and the boardroom do not necessarily mean creativity has been deprioritized or devalued across organizations. They do, however, raise a question about the course of these variations. If growth-focused titles are overtaking the CMO, is this a function of the CMO role evolving into new titles, or are CMOs being replaced by individuals with completely different skillsets?
To be frank, it’s complicated. We have seen evidence to support both theories, yet there is no definitive answer on account of the intricacies of organizational dynamics. Consider the following cases:
Follow the skills
While the answer to the replacement versus evolution question may be far from straightforward, the point could be entirely moot. Companies and individuals can call a position whatever they want; in some cases, it is just semantic differences. However, going beyond titles to look at how skills change over time allows us to get a more complete picture of the evolution in the C-suite and in marketing organizations.
Based on our analysis of CMO job postings, we are seeing a shift that suggests CMO skillsets are increasingly leaning further away from creativity. Within the past couple of years, there has been a dramatic decline in creative design skills, which have been completely overtaken by more analytical expertise.
We see a similar theme at the individual skill level; the fastest-rising skills mentioned in CMO job postings since 2015 are “key performance indicators (KPIs)” and “cloud solutions,” two areas that fall solidly into the data and analysis side of marketing.
We have already established that growth-focused titles are surpassing CMOs. These skill trends further reveal that creative skills are becoming less prevalent even among the CMOs who remain. And it’s not only CMOs who realize this change; marketing talent has seen a shift from creative to analytical skills across nearly every industry. Based on data from Deloitte’s 2022 Global Marketing Trends executive survey, CMOs identified analytical expertise as a more important skill than creative expertise for their top-performing marketing talent across every industry except the consumer industry.
A gap emerges
To summarize, we see massively increasing C-suite growth roles and board representation while C-suite creative roles are plateauing and even declining. This can leave a gap in creative leadership where creative solutions can be championed at the highest levels of the organization.
We are also seeing decreasing demand for creative skillsets among both CMOs and their marketing talent. This can leave a gap where creative skills are needed to craft and develop new ideas into practical business solutions.
A shortage of creative leadership and talent suggests a company has not adequately prioritized or defined creativity. This can leave a gap in an organization’s culture where creative thought can extend to innovative ways of solving problems.
The above data exposes subtle shifts that are not likely to be noticed in the short-term. But, when repeated over several years, we can clearly see the emergence of a creativity gap across businesses.
Filling the creativity gap
In 2019, 18-year-old Billie Eilish released a song titled “Bad Guy” that was unlike most contemporary popular music. For one thing, it could hardly be classified as pop music at all. Eilish’s style has been described as electropop, dance-pop, pop-trap, and nu-goth pop, with industrial music and hip-hop influences. The song, co-written by Eilish and her brother doesn’t even contain a hook, something typically seen as necessary to catch a listener’s ear. Yet not only did “Bad Guy” reach 6x platinum certification, Rolling Stone named it one of the 100 best songs of the 2010s.
Just as Billie Eilish uses her uniquely creative methods to stand out in the increasingly homogenized world of pop music, so can brands disseminate creativity across their organizations to rise above the emerging shortcomings in the corporate world. The creativity gap represents a macro level view of how deprioritizing creativity can lead to commoditized solutions. Yet what may seem discouraging for business, instead represents a golden opportunity for individual organizations. At a time when creativity is being neglected elsewhere, companies that encourage creative thought and execute creative processes can set themselves apart from their competition and disrupt entire industries.
But where to start? Billie Eilish inspires millions of fans through her music, and business leaders can take note of her approach to making music to set up their organizations for creative success.
Leading a creative renaissance
For Billie Eilish, a working environment that includes only Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, allows for more creative liberty and dexterity. O’Connell says, “When you’re working with a larger group, you’re conscious of the whole world outside of you. But when it’s just the two of us, there is this sense that we’re just going to make this [song] and [release it] today.”
Because erosion of creative leadership is one of the primary driving forces behind the creativity gap in business, it stands to reason that correcting this imbalance can also be the impetus for a creative resurgence. Beyond providing creative thought at the organization's highest levels, senior leadership is best positioned to provide the structure and support within the organization to maximize the creative potential of all employees.
However, it’s not only about giving creative thinkers a spot at the executive table. As modeled by the creative leads behind Billie Eilish’s music (Eilish and her brother), the key is allowing creative leaders the freedom to allocate resources and to make decisions quickly. In the words of Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, speaking on the "CMOs in the Spotlight" panel at the 2022 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, “We want to have the mentality of a startup with the resources of a 180-year-old company.”
Building on creative inspiration
Billie Eilish’s music may be unique, but that doesn’t mean the sounds and lyrics come to Eilish and O’Connell out of thin air; in fact, the opposite is true. When they’re not writing or recording music, Eilish and O’Connell listen to every genre and every age of music they can. According to O’Connell, these other songs become a subconscious influence on their writing that gets “boiled down into this broth that we make.”
Similarly, organizations need not limit inspiration to any single source. With a solid foundation of creative leadership established, organizations can focus on incorporating creative thought into the company culture. This can start with a reactive approach that ensures there is a platform for capturing new ideas from employees, customers, suppliers, or other stakeholders. With this platform in place, organizations can get more proactive by encouraging and incentivizing the generation of new ideas. Even if an idea doesn’t pan out, making this a fun process for stakeholders through gamification or other means can be well worth the effort.
LEGO does this by allowing customers to submit ideas for unique brick-building concepts through its “LEGO Ideas” platform. The main appeal for customers comes from the possibility of their concept being sold by LEGO on store shelves if it garners enough support from the LEGO social community. But even if the idea isn’t one of the most popular, customers can still earn rewards, get the chance to share their ideas, and interact with fans who are as passionate about LEGO as they are.
Pushing the creative envelope
Rather than adapting to music industry and societal norms, Billie Eilish is shaping them. Eilish isn’t afraid to release songs with themes other artists typically avoid, including topics like teen suicide and climate change. She has also pushed back on what she believes society wrongly expects from women and young girls by not faking smiles for the camera and by wearing baggy clothing to prevent body shaming. For Eilish, these may be conscious moral stances, yet from a commercial standpoint, these choices have the added benefit of being thoroughly relatable to her core audience of teens and young adults.
In addition to being impacted by elements within a business, creative potential can be constrained by an industry environment that discourages operating contrarily to well-established practices or regulations. Like Billie Eilish defining her standard for how a pop star should look and act, pushing creativity beyond the four walls of your company can remove industry barriers, enabling the creative organization you’ve built to flourish.
If the industry ecosystem limits creative potential, it could mean investing time and resources in industry associations or political action committees to effect change. Consider the example of French supermarket chain, Carrefour, which used its resources to help repeal a European law that prohibited 97% of agricultural biodiversity. This led to an increase in the fruit and vegetable consumption of Carrefour’s customers, an increase in its bottom line, and it completely transformed how Carrefour’s employees think about solving problems in the industry.
Don’t commoditize, capitalize
In music as in business, a creativity gap presents an opportunity. Autotuned singers who release songs written by the same individuals writing everyone else’s music can easily be replaced. Billie Eilish’s unique sound, featuring lyrics written by Eilish and her brother, is nearly impossible to replicate. And because Eilish operates in an environment that leverages her freedom as a creative leader and builds on inspiration from nearly infinite sources, all within an ecosystem she pushed to form, there are no limits to what Eilish can create and accomplish. While this may come naturally to Eilish, it is still intentional. As the singer puts it, “If I'm inspired to make a certain kind of song, I'm going to make that kind of song, no matter if it's what they know me as or think I am.”
Whether your brand needs only minor tweaks to reach its creative potential or whether it needs a complete overhaul to rethink what creativity can offer, the path forward could require being as intentional about your approach as Billie Eilish is about hers. Brands can choose the common, more commoditized path like the pop music of today—and probably of tomorrow—or they can use the opportunity the creativity gap offers to stand out. By reshaping creative leadership, building systems for generating creative ideas, and pushing creative thought beyond previous boundaries, brands may find that, like Billie Eilish, there is no limit to what they can create and accomplish.
Andy Sandoz is a partner and global chief creative officer of Deloitte Digital where he leads the full range of creative services, as well as the UK customer perspective on net zero. Andy’s work connects creativity with the strategy, design, and technology of consulting to shape sustainable business futures.
Mark Singer is the US CMO of Deloitte Digital. He embeds creativity into the way businesses solve their problems and creates purpose-driven solutions that transform how they operate, while growing their bottom line.
Rory McCallum is a manager of research and insights for Deloitte’s CMO Program. As a researcher with Deloitte Services LP, he focuses on emerging marketing trends and CMO dynamics within the C-suite.
Narasimham Mulakaluri is a data scientist for Deloitte’s research and insights team. He focuses on statistical methods, machine learning, and AI techniques to solve business problems and support researchers in predicting market trends.