Solving Creatives: Freedom or Safety?

Solving Creatives: Freedom or Safety?

The previous installment posed an important question: what do creatives want? The answer, it seemed to me, is simple. Simple enough, and at this point probably conventional enough, that many may discard my conclusion as old hat.

More interesting to me is how, while scribbling out this answer, I stumbled onto another barrier that seems to stand not only between brands and creatives, but also between people’s relationships in general.

What is more important? Freedom or Safety?

But I promised an answer to my first question, and I’ve delayed long enough. So what do creatives want?

Creatives want to be successful doing what they love.

“Doing what they love” means having the freedom to explore process, convention, platforms, and ideologies. There’s nothing brand-safe about it.

You can either be safe or you can be free. You’ll never be both.

That’s good advice for life, but it also applies to your marketing. Safe marketing plays well; it draws in conventional consumers and maintains existing clientele. Safe marketing pulls out of YouTube when it turns out ads are being run indiscriminately against ISIS propaganda, and safe marketing follows established formats.

Safe marketing will not make a splash.

While getting a degree in writing fiction, my peers and I rarely discussed safety. Something was either true or needed more truth; it either worked or it needed more development. Thinking creatively means putting aside conventions such as “being wrong.” The art simply wasn’t ripe yet. Moving into the marketing field now, much is made of phrases like “thinking outside the box” and “disruption.” But I’ve seen a lot of self-style “outside the box” thinkers quickly resort to tried-and-true processes when the environment became unsafe. When pipelines are dry and sales aren’t coming in, it’s easy to double-down on the tactics that have worked before (like door-knocking and nepotism). There’s nothing wrong with that, but these moments must be named or else we’re deluding ourselves.

The freedom to ignore data, buck trends, and follow intuition seems to be worth its weight in gold to artists these days. Institutions that at least promise to follow these principles are quickly collecting fleeing thought-leaders, and those thought-leaders are not being lured back by titles and earnings.

Part of this disruption stems from the more typical creative fields. More and more musicians are having success without signing away their lives to labels (like Chance the Rapper) while indie films generate income by selling finished products to OTT’s. Artists like Banksy are even using the establishment to defeat itself, as was the case with the self-shredding painting at an auction. “Success” by way of “what they love” is about ideals and the freedom to boldly express those ideals, not corporate maneuvering.   

More important than being bold is being honest. Because if you bring in creatives with the promise that you’re an agency or brand that loves to experiment but then quash every weird idea, your work will ring hollow and your employees will be unhappy (for the brief time they spend with you).   

The conclusion seems like creatives get what they want and brands simply have to cave if they want to bring in the top talent. But that isn’t true. The ignored factor here is the audience.

What do the consumers want? How are they in-taking content? Where are they doing it? For how long? Answering these questions will either show you the way to go or offer the correction you (admins and creatives both) need. Your audience is both the tightrope you must walk and the safety net to catch you. Creatives, for their part, must interpret their freedoms from within this sphere or else risk not only botching a campaign from an ROI perspective but also missing an audience. Some creatives may insist that art is art whether people get it or not, and of course they’re right. And they should also be fired. But more on that later.

Next Week: The Weird Side Of Unfettered Freedom

Hunter is Slate and Main’s Content Manager, staff writer, and It-Kid. Follow him on Twitter at @HunterRaySmith and email him at

Hunter Smith