Creative Director

Creatives talk technology: exploring the role and influence of digital media in the creative process of advertising art directors and copywriters 


  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Individual tasks and behaviours that shape advertising creativity
  4. Sociocultural analysis of advertising creativity
  5. Method
  6. Findings
  7. Creator
  8. Field
  9. Domain
  10. Discussion and conclusion
  11. Disclosure statement
  12. ORCID
  13. References

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The everyday work practices of advertising art directors and copywriters are being transformed by digital media technologies. While there has been a long-term scholarly interest in the nature of the creative process in this professional context, it has yet to be combined with an examination of digital practices. To investigate this relationship, this article draws upon a qualitative study that explores practitioner perceptions of their creative process and the role of digital media technologies in the development of creative concepts for new advertisements. Analysis of interviews with Australian art directors and copywriters reveals digital media are widely used within the creative process as research tools and sources of inspiration, yet many participants are wary of the influence of these technologies on their work. Interpretation of these perceptions using the system model of creativity and literature on algorithmic gatekeeping provides insight into how digital media, particularly those with search functions, both enable and constrain advertising creativity. The article argues that while digital media provide convenient access to information about the field and domain in which practitioners operate, the personalisation algorithms applied by search-based platforms are simultaneously capable of limiting access to qualitatively diverse sources of knowledge and inspiration.

Keywords: advertising creativity; creative process; digital media; systems model of creativityIntroduction

Art directors and copywriters do not develop new ideas for advertising narratives in isolation from the world outside an agency’s walls. While personal experience plays a role in their creative process, the knowledge and inspiration gathered through media channels exert considerable influence on the work they produce. This condition has been widely recognised by stage-based models of creativity that begin with a research phase that involves accessing informational ‘raw materials’ from a broad spectrum of sources (Young [21]; Belch et al. [ 4]). In the past, this information was gathered from legacy media such as books on award-winning advertising, industry publications and mass media channels. This relative information scarcity has been replaced by abundant and convenient access to the cultural representations needed to influence the development of new ideas for advertising concepts. This change in access to information represents a significant shift within the creative process that is yet to be fully explored.

To address this gap, I conducted a qualitative study of 18 art directors and copywriters working in Australian advertising agencies. Participants’ perceptions of their creative process and use of technology were analysed with regard to specific creative process tasks and the sociocultural contexts in which advertising is produced. Young’s ([21]) stage-based model of creative process offers a practicable means of identifying creative process tasks such as research, association making and idea evaluation, yet in itself this creator-centric approach does not sufficiently address the social and cultural relationships that shape the production of creative advertising. To provide a means of identifying the role and influence of digital media channels applied in the creative process, this article also employs the system model of creativity developed by Csikszentmihalyi ([ 8], [ 9], [10]) in its analytical framework. This model draws attention to the interactions between three social systems: the creator of an idea who produces a novel variation of an existing creative product, the field that selects and disseminates this outcome and the domain that provides a cultural context and retains an idea for future adaptations. Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut ([20]) have used the systems model to delineate the influence of the field and domain systems on the production of advertising; this article extends these authors’ study by investigating nature and implications of using digital media to access these creative process systems.

Analysis of study participants’ insider accounts of their creative process and use of technology reveals a variety of perceptions. While some participants embraced digital media as a means of collecting research materials at the start of their creative process, others expressed apprehension about its influence on their ability to develop the cutting-edge ideas valorised by the advertising industry. These perceptions will be discussed with regard to the implications of digital media use, particularly those with personalised search capabilities. Search-based media, most notably Google search, provide art directors and copywriters with the capacity to navigate the vast amount of online content that can build knowledge and trigger inspiration. Yet the algorithmic filtering employed by these technologies represents a significant shift in technology use, a transformation that both assists and constrains the production of novel advertising due to its widespread and often loosely considered role in everyday creative practice.Background

Individual tasks and behaviours that shape advertising creativity

A number of researchers have developed stage-based models that sequentially categorise the cognitive processes and behaviours of those who produce creative objects. Two widely applied stage-based models, Osborn’s brainstorming approach and Young’s five-stage model, reveal the specificity of creativity in an advertising context, particularly with regard to tasks that are capable of being influenced by digital media use, such as research actions and the development of novel associations.

The two-stage ‘brainstorming’ approach, which was developed by advertising practitioner Alex Osborn in the mid-twentieth century, has been applied widely to different types of knowledge work and continues to have currency today for advertising practitioners (Bost [ 6]). While this model has been adapted many times, its variations commonly frame ideation as a two-stage process of idea generation and problem solution. During an initial stage, a group of participants take part in a brainstorming session in which many possibilities are discussed but are not evaluated with regards to their appropriateness to a given task (Reid and Moriarty [17], 127). Participants are encouraged to build on new ideas as they emerge through a process of free association, the articulation of whatever ideas come to mind while ‘trying to avoid conscious choices’ (Landa [13], 100). This approach can be aligned with associationist theory, which claims creativity occurs when ideas ‘that are already in the domain and that have been internalized by the creator’ are combined to create a new concept (Sawyer [18], 115). Writing about the field of advertising Leo Burnett describes creativity as ‘the art of establishing new and meaningful relationships between previously unrelated things … which somehow present the product in a fresh, new light’ (cited in Vanden Bergh and Katz [19], 408). After the time allocated for the first stage of brainstorming has passed, a second phase that involves evaluating the large number of ideas generated according to their ability to solve the prescribed problem takes place. In an agency environment, it is the role of a creative team consisting of an art director and copywriter (commonly referred to as ‘creatives’) to determine how novel associations can be shaped into an advertising narrative that is capable of achieving a desired organisational outcome. It is worth noting that two-stage approaches generally depend on the application of existing knowledge and experience, as a research stage is not prescribed. As such, they ignore the influence of exposure to new information that can occur during the creative process, a condition that is partially addressed by another practitioner developed model.

The five-stage creative process model devised by James Webb Young gained considerable attention amid the advertising industry’s ‘creative revolution’ in the 1960s and 1970s with Bengtson describing Young’s model as having ‘a profound effect on how advertising practitioners, educators, and students conceptualize idea generation and its attendant processes’ ([ 5], 4). Its perceived efficacy continues to be recognised, with Belch et al. ([ 4]) describing the model as one of the most popular approaches for ideation within the advertising industry. Young’s model identifies the creative process as encompassing five stages: immersion – a research stage that includes taking an interest in diverse sources of information and the gathering of ‘raw materials’; digestion – the act of looking for relationships between collected materials; incubation – turning the problem over to a relaxed mind; illumination – when the idea arrives or the ‘eureka’ moment happens; and verification – making the idea fit its purpose and submitting it to criticism (Young [21]; Belch et al. [ 4]). When discussing the immersion stage, Young claims research should involve the collection of two types of materials: specific information that relates to the product and its consumer, and more general reference points that enable the creator to identify novel combinations ([21], 24–25).

While a number of tasks described in stage-based models are relevant to studying the influence of digital media on the creative process of art directors and copywriters, they present a series of limitations as a means of identifying the role and influence of digital media. For instance, Bengtson suggests research should be handled cautiously as knowledge building can be a ‘double-edged sword’ for advertising creatives. While acknowledging that exposure to information can lead to the forming of a relevant and novel association, he warns that immersion in task-specific research can impede the ideation process. He writes: ‘Knowledge directs thinking. It is, in this sense, hazardous to one’s creative health, for knowledge is the guardian of the status quo and a formidable foe to forces that threaten it’ ([ 5], 6). It is worth noting that Bengtson’s criticism of Young’s model of the creative process occurred well before the age of networked and mobile telecommunications, technologies that significantly expand the volume of information that may be fed to the creative process. Young also framed his model as an ‘assembly line’ and formulaic process ([21], 6); a characterisation that suggests one phase must be completed before another begins. Bengtson describes this as a simplification of the creative process and notes that its chronology of events is rarely predictable in practice. For instance, immersion in existing knowledge and ideas that support ideation can potentially happen at any time in the creative process. In addition, the focus of stage-based models on cognitive machinations and individual behaviours to some degree precludes analysis of the social and cultural influences that shape the production of creative advertising. These limitations are however addressed by models that situate the creative process as an evolutionary and environmentally determined phenomenon.Sociocultural analysis of advertising creativity

Rather than categorising the tasks taken by the individual in the creative process, Csikszentmihalyi’s ([ 9]) systems model of creativity is concerned with the relationships of the social systems that collectively enable or constrain the formation of an idea, object or action (Figure 1). The model traces the interactions of three systems: the creator of an idea, the field that selects and transmits a novel variation and the domain that provides a cultural context and a repository of commonly known ideas, beliefs and texts. The field consists of a body of experts or intermediaries with varying levels of expertise, status and power (Sawyer [18]); in the context of creative advertising production, it consists of the advertising industry, the client, the advertising enterprise and audiences, all of which have an influence, in both implicit and explicit ways, in determining whether a novel variation is accepted and disseminated to the domain. Rather than presenting a linear process that starts with the creator, a notable quality of the systems model is its circularity. The model acknowledges that the creative process does not always commence with a fixed and predictable event, such as the desire of the individual to perform an act of creation. In addition, it emphasises the dynamic nature of creative practice by identifying the multiple roles of participants. For example, the audience is part of the field system and exists within a broader cultural realm that provides the creator with consumer insights that can be interpolated into a novel outcome. Importantly, there is a two-way flow of communication between the field and domain, as the identification and selection of a new idea is shaped by the field’s knowledge of the conventions maintained by the domain.

Graph: Figure 1. Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity ([ 9], 315).

Closely following the framework established by Csikszentmihalyi ([ 8]), Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut ([20]) empirically analysed case studies on the production of high-profile advertisements. Their classification of data gathered from ‘Moment of Creation’ case studies written for AGENCY magazine from 1991 to 2001 indicated that 42.5% of practitioners referred to the influence of other creatives when discussing the development of a high-profile advertisement, 23% mentioned the field and 34.5% commented on the domain (387). These findings support the argument that advertising is a collaborative process that extends beyond the cognitive actions of the individual creator or creative team. The study emphasises the considerable influence of the domain, claiming this ‘repository of inspiration’ provides creatives with the popular cultural reference points that advertising ‘thrives on’ (391–393). The authors argue that the field influences the creative process by serving as a generative force that provides ‘guidance, support and opportunity’ to the creative team in addition to functioning as a gatekeeper in its determination of what is considered to be a novel and relevant advertisement (390). These points highlight the role of information gathering in the creative process, a task that is mentioned in the Young model but relegated to the early stages of a creator-centred approach. While Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut did not identify the channels used to enable communicative relationships between three systems, their conclusions assist this paper’s exploration of the influence of digital media on advertising creativity.Method

A qualitative research design was selected to investigate practitioners’ perceptions of the role and influence of digital media. This approach was deemed suitable as the study considers the creative process, which is, in part, a subjective phenomenon that lends itself to analysis of detailed descriptions of experience.

One-on-one interviews with 18 Australian advertising art directors and copywriters were conducted from March 2013 to January 2014 (Table 1). The aim of this research was not to present generalisable results but instead provide an understanding of the variance in perspectives held by a group of participants about their everyday work practices. Practitioners based in three Australian states (New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland) were recruited, as these regions collectively produce 85% of the country’s advertising revenue (Allday [ 2], 19). On average, study participants had 15.3 years of experience in the advertising industry. This purposive sample predominantly consisted of participants from a cross-section of small, medium and large advertising agencies, the majority of whom were well established in their careers.

Table 1. Participant characteristics.

NameAgeGenderAgency size (staff no.)Experience (years)PositionFocusLocation
CW125–34MN/A9Senior copywriterGeneralistMEL/SYD
AD135–44M50–9913Digital art directorGeneralistMEL
AD235–44M1–1917Digital art directorDigitalMEL
AD318–24FN/A4Mid-weight art directorGeneralistMEL
AD435–44M1–1917Senior art directorDigitalBNE
AD535–44M1–1915Creative & art directorGeneralistMEL
CW225–34M50–995Mid-weight copywriterGeneralistSYD
AD635–44M50–9913Senior art directorGeneralistSYD
CW345–54M1–1930Creative & copywriterGeneralistBNE
AD745–54F100+26Senior art directorFashionMEL
CW435–44F20–4912Senior copywriterGeneralistMEL
AD835–44M1–1927Senior art directorFashionMEL
CW535–44MN/A24Creative & copywriterGeneralistBNE
AD935–44M50–999Senior art directorGeneralistSYD
CW625–34M50–994Mid-weight copywriterGeneralistSYD
AD1035–44FN/A15Senior art directorFashionMEL/SYD
AD1135–44M50–9915Digital art directorDigitalBNE
AD1235–44M50–9921Senior art directorGeneralistBNE

A semi-structured interview format allowed discussion to arise naturally around key points of enquiry. Open-ended questions based on an interview guide were varied to suit different participants and their circumstances while still covering the same conceptual ground, an approach that enabled comparisons to be made between the perceptions and experiences described. The names of all participants (aliases have been used for the presentation of data) and their employers were de-identified following the transcription of audio-recorded interviews.

An inductive approach was applied in this study to allow empirically driven codes to emerge from collected data. Transcribed interviews were analysed using Miles and Huberman’s ([15]) three-stage process. The first stage involved data reduction in which general categories of information pertaining to participants’ perceptions of their everyday creative process actions and use of digital media were developed. Conceptual links between codes were considered to develop an initial series of themes. During the data display stage, data were organised in a spreadsheet matrix that allowed a ‘big picture’ analysis of codes within a series of categories for further exploration of patterns and themes to occur. The third stage of analysis sought to verify the study’s findings by returning to the interview transcripts to review the coding analysis and cross check the conclusions drawn.

Themes were developed and reviewed with an awareness of the discursive status of data drawn from interviews. While participant accounts of individual and industry practices provided an apparently ‘authentic’ account, they cannot be taken as an unmediated ‘truth’. It is acknowledged that participants may self-report selectively to present themselves in a favourable light (Atkinson, Delamont, and Coffey [ 3]). As Albert ([ 1], 12) points out, responses to questions pertaining to professional practice commonly engender intense emotions including ‘anguish, pride, anxiety, security sought and secured’. Rather than seeking to present each voice as a ‘fact’, collective inferences have been drawn from what has been presented as ‘truth’ by each respondent.Findings

The study’s findings are presented below to reveal the interactions of the three creative process systems: the field, the domain and the creator (Csikszentmihalyi [10]). This approach provides a means of grouping themes drawn from analysis within a clear narrative structure.Creator

In a similar finding to the Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut ([20]) study, participants reinforced the collaborative nature of advertising creativity with the majority stating they regularly worked as part of a creative team consisting of an art director and copywriter. However, that is not to say all tasks were completed as a team. When asked to describe their creative process, an ad hoc and loosely structured movement between individual and team ideation actions were commonly described. For instance:

I’ll get the brief and I’ll just try and read it over and over again until I understand it … I’ll just speak (the ideas out loud) or try to think visually about them or talk to the art director (and) bounce ideas off him. [CW6]

That first stage is really brain dumping … it’s discussing it out [sic] and kind of teasing it out and discussing some of the options to start with … You have a break, go and get a cup of coffee or something and then you usually change gears, think of your own ideas for a while and come back to (team work). [CW2]

The majority of participants did not discuss tasks that could be identified as relating to Young’s immersion stage in which raw materials are gathered but instead focused on digestion and incubation tasks. The use of digital media was referred to on one occasion during initial descriptions of the creative process, with a senior copywriter stating she was a ‘really big believer in working really intensely and then I go away and look at something on the Internet’ [CW4]. In this instance, the participant considers her use of the Internet as a distraction rather than a research tool. It should be noted that participants were asked to describe their creative process at the start of the interview; when probed further about specific actions, such as research and use of digital media, all confirmed that digital media was used to access online sources of information at some point. As such, it can be interpreted that those outside the creative team and the influence of digital media were not foremost in the thoughts of participants during initial reflections on the creative process.Field

The systems model of creativity posits that a series of gatekeepers determine whether an object produced by a creator is a novel and appropriate variation and subsequently disseminated to the domain. With regard to creative advertising, the client determines the parameters surrounding a project and ultimately accepts or rejects the creative product; other members of the field, including the advertising agency’s senior management, account executives and creative directors, determine the allocation of resources and overall creative philosophy or direction. Broader industry perceptions of what constitutes creative advertising are communicated through trade publications and awards for creativity. While passing references were made on the involvement of clients and non-creative team colleagues, discussion of field influences generally revolved around industry perceptions of what is considered to be ‘creative’ with participants commonly raising concern about the insular nature of their industry. For instance:

Advertising creativity can be a little bit of an echo chamber where some people just get inspired by ads and it’s a circular thing. [CW2]

I just try and stay outside the field of advertising because it gets incestuous … If I work in it, I don’t need to digest it all night. [CW1]

For these practitioners, the industry itself can act as an impediment to the achievement of novel outcomes, with exposure to other advertisements potentially encouraging the replication of existing advertising styles and narratives. While these practitioners appear to be unequivocal in their concern over the influence of exposure to other advertisements on their own work, it is likely that advertising conventions are considered to ensure the field accepts their work. As such, these practitioner statements could be read as a concern about over-exposure to existing advertisements, an outcome of the proliferation of networked digital media.

In an unexpected finding, some participants said they use Google to evaluate the originality of creative concepts. This process, which three practitioners specifically referred to as the ‘Google check’, involves placing terms that describe a creative concept into the search engine to determine if their idea had been applied in an advertisement that is already in the public domain. This action indicates the importance placed on the production of original ideas. Yet with regard to digital media use, it raises the question of whether Google search becomes an actor in the creative process as a member of the field, an ‘expert’ on the concept of advertising originality that scours the domain as part of a verification process.Domain

A series of findings can be understood in terms of participants’ communicative relationships with the domain system. Participants said they accessed a selection of digital media as part of their creative process, with blog content emerging as the most commonly identified research source. The types of blogs mentioned included advertising industry, design and photography sites. Other digital media, including Google Images, newspaper websites, e-newsletters, YouTube, online forums, Twitter, Facebook and product review sites were commonly used. This reflects the desire of participants to access a large number of information sources from the domain that expose them to examples of consumer behaviour and cultural representations, including existing advertisements and popular culture references.

While audiences play a gatekeeper role by determining what will be accepted as a creative advertisement, participant discussion suggests these groups also provide information and inspiration that can be used in the development of a creative advertising and as such, also sit within the domain system. The majority of participants discussed a desire to ‘understand’ and ‘connect’ with audiences. For example:

My quest is for truth and that’s what I’m constantly looking for, I think if you find a truth that hasn’t been told before you don’t have to worry about the originality, it’s (already) original, people are going to connect with it. [AD6]

Other participants described similar means of connecting with audiences as the identification and communication of ‘human truths’ or ‘consumer insights’. In effect, it could be interpreted that these participants are seeking to hold a mirror up to the audience and present a facet of their lives back to them. This desire to connect with audiences highlights a particular affordance of digital media, particularly social media, in the creative process as a convenient means of building knowledge of audience behaviours and attitudes.

When discussing barriers to the creative process, participants mentioned the issue of media saturation as a phenomenon they felt had the capacity to limit their creativity. This saturation, which was described in terms of both the large amount of advertising produced and the contemporary media environment more generally, was viewed as making it more difficult to produce original ideas. In the words of one participant:

There’s so many things have been done, so many ad scripts have been written, so many campaigns have been done it’s hard to come up with a new thing. [AD9]

Another participant said existing advertisements and media content were problematic when new ideas were not forthcoming during the creative process. For instance:

You get a brief, you’re working on stuff, trying to think of ideas, you can’t think of any good ideas, and whether it’s consciously or subconsciously you are influenced by things that you’ve seen whether it’s another ad or whether it’s something else. [CW2]

While this participant notes that replicating an existing creative concept can be the outcome of both conscious and subconscious replication, other participants said the emergence of the same idea within advertisements produced by different creative teams was generally the result of coincidence.

If you do come up with a campaign that’s similar then it’s coincidental and I have done that in the past where I’ve presented an idea that I don’t ever remember seeing before and someone says ‘it’s been done before’. [CW6]

These observations, and in particular concerns over the influence of unintentional plagiarism, raise the possibility that exposure to a large amount of advertisements and other media content makes it difficult for art directors or copywriters to remember the source of an idea, an unintended consequence of the deployment of digital media in the creative process.

The majority of participants said digital media were used for research, an action described as occurring at any stage of the creative process. While this finding highlights the importance of access to information drawn from the domain, various perspectives emerged on the efficacy of research gathering. Participants responsible for different types of creative advertising were found to have similar perceptions of their online technologies use during the preparation, digestion and illumination phases of the creative process. Those who specialised in fashion and digital advertising consistently discussed task-specific research as a first step in their creative process. By contrast, participants who said they worked across a range of client sectors and largely outside the digital specialism, who will be referred to as generalist creative practitioners for the purposes of this article, perceived task-specific research as an action to be avoided until an idea had formed. Their explanations suggested they did this to avoid producing overly derivative creative concepts. For example:

If you specifically go looking for it you never quite find it or you get too derivative. [CW1]

You get the same inspirations and the same visual feeds and the same facts as everybody else is getting. So if you visit this blog or the other blog, it essentially doesn’t matter because the content is going to be the same. [AD9]

All these ads (recently) came out at once, it was like a giant person walking through the street, then it was a huge clock walking through the street, and then it was rabbits coming out of the ground in the street … Everyone was probably watching these popular YouTubes going ‘why don’t we put that in Melbourne or Sydney?’ [AD3]

Despite this, research using online technologies was described as a common action when the knowledge and experience needed to form new associations was exhausted or when the participant had ‘come to a dead end’ [CW2]. This point is interesting because it demonstrates both a desire to avoid digital media during the creative process and a faith in online searching in terms of its ability to get the job done but not necessarily with a sufficient degree of creativity.

Generalist practitioners commonly described digital media content as being employed to illustrate creative concepts to clients. One participant described refinement as occurring when ‘the ideas (are) there, it’s just sort of colouring in’ [CW2]. Another described the process of applying ‘film and tangible references, things the client might not … have seen before but we help paint that picture’ [AD6]. This participant went on to emphasise that YouTube clips are used to support ideas rather than as a direct source of inspiration. This perception appears to remove digital media from the creative process by situating its use as a means of illustrating ideas and reducing ambiguity when ‘selling’ an idea to a client. Young’s model would suggest this action would sit in a verification phase. However, the possibility exists that while a creative concept may have been formed independently of a YouTube video, the use of this media content as an illustrative reference has the potential to fold back on the idea and reshape its final execution as the creative process is often the result of recursive and non-linear actions (McIntyre [14]).

Despite the majority of generalist participants stating that they aimed to avoid media content until an idea had been formed, just under half of these participants said research was valuable if undertaken as an on-going process. For instance:

I find it better to use that stuff, whether they are blogs or humour websites, not in relation to a task. I think it’s better to have a healthy appetite for that stuff and it just bounces around and then you realise that you just end up picking and choosing it as you need it. [CW1]

(I read) stuff that may not seem relevant but it really is, because someday somewhere you’ll remember what you’ve read and you’ll say to your partner ‘I read this thing that it’s really interesting that people do this, and then there’s an idea in that’. So, you have to have a constant whirl and add to that. [CW4]

Other participants described the process of completing on-going research as allowing them to be ‘well-rounded’ or ‘plugged-in’ with regard to the domain in which they operate. These observations highlight the perceived value of exposure to diverse forms of information, a trait highlighted by Young’s model of creative process ([21]). The importance placed on on-going research by these participants suggests a preference for research material that is recalled rather than task-specific information gathering without personal inflection. Yet, it was acknowledged that this is a desired series of events and that digital media was used as a source of inspiration and knowledge building when the practitioner’s experience was exhausted.

Analysis of digital media use descriptions from creatives specialising in fashion advertising revealed a different perspective to perspectives commonly offered by generalist creatives. Rather than stating a desire to avoid research until an idea had been formed, specialist fashion creatives highlighted the value of using digital media at the start of the creative process to familiarise themselves with the visual approaches employed in advertisements for global brands. In the words of one participant:

I definitely go online and Google the hell out of the topic that I’m looking to do a creative concept about. [AD8]

This step was then described as being followed by an editing process:

I guess what I do then is sit down and let the onslaught of information that I’ve researched swirl around inside my head until I start to come up with ideas and I jot them down and start to explore them. [AD8]

While a desire is stated for information to be reflected upon and adapted, research is seen as an action that kick-starts the creative process. As such these descriptions reflect Young’s ([21]) description of the creative process as starting with an immersion stage that involves collecting ‘raw materials’ prior to the commencement of subsequent phases.

Participants who specialised in digital advertising described research tasks involving digital media as a fundamental aspect of their creative processes. Task-specific research actions were described by one digital advertising specialist as taking place at various points of the creative process, as the following observation illustrates:

You know research can take place all the way along especially with technology. You might find a stumbling block along the way and have to research a solution, so research is an important … concept (that) generally happens at the start and moves from there. [AD2]

Another digital advertising practitioner illustrated on-going research actions using online technologies by describing his team’s production and distribution of a weekly email to colleagues on digital advertising innovation. This action was described as offering a means of keeping colleagues informed of digital media innovations and, as such, offers another example of the field serving as a shaping force with experts providing creatives with access to knowledge maintained in the domain.

Analysis using the system model of creativity and the identification of specific creative process tasks provide a detailed picture of how digital media are used by a selection of art directors and copywriters. It tells us that both the field and creator systems draw heavily on the cultural representations maintained by the domain system and, as such, identifies a range of external influences on the production of creative advertising. The study’s findings reveal the influence of digital media was not ‘top-of-mind’ for participants when they initially reflected on the creative process, yet it is evident online technologies have emerged as their dominant window onto the world and are accessed at various stages and for various reasons within the creative process. These platforms are deployed as research tools to collect information about audiences and cultural references, as a distraction between bursts of discussion-based ideation, to refine or illustrate advertising narratives and as a means of determining the originality of a creative concept. Apprehension about the influence of digital media content on the production of creative advertising was noted, with some participants feeling exposure to existing ideas led to the conscious or subconscious production of derivative work. As such, generalist creative practitioners stated a preference for research to take place on an on-going rather than task-specific basis and a desire not to be overwhelmed by industry-specific media content. However, it is worth noting that many of these practitioners said digital media was used when their knowledge or inspiration was exhausted, a finding that evinces the perceived utility of digital media as a flawed but necessary ‘safety net’.Discussion and conclusion

This article’s findings indicate the majority of participants communicated an ambivalent view of the role and influence of digital media use in the creative process. The ability to draw inspiration from the ‘human insights’ provided by social media and convenient access to cultural representations were identified as clear benefits of networked digital media. Digital media, and Google search in particular, was also used as a means of checking the originality of ideas and illustrating proposed creative concepts for client presentations. However, a wariness of being exposed to existing advertisements prior to the development of their own ideas was commonly expressed. Further interpretation of these perceptions using the system model of creativity and literature on algorithmic gatekeeping provides insight into how digital media, particularly those with search functions, both enable and constrain advertising creativity.

Participants, most notably generalist art directors and copywriters, discussed the strategy of avoiding exposure to digital media content until after their own ideas had formed. If we refer back to Young’s model of creative process ([21]), these perceptions suggest a preference for bypassing research actions as part of an immersion phase in favour of beginning the creative process with digestion and incubation stages that rely on the creator’s (or creative team’s) own knowledge and experience to develop novel associations. For the majority of generalist practitioners, starting with a research phase was frowned upon as it was viewed as accommodating either conscious or subconscious plagiarism. The ‘echo chamber’ or insular nature of the advertising industry was also discussed and connected to absorbing media content about the sector including examples of innovative advertising. Yet despite the desire to avoid media content, it is important to note that creative advertising must refer to existing conventions and cultural representations to have meaning for its audience; it must draw from what the field considers to be creative to in turn be recognised as a novel variation of what has come before. Griffin and Morrison ([12]) point out that while practitioners are required to be cognisant of industry trends, they must also forget these reference points to develop novel outcomes. As such, the desire to avoid media content in favour of personal knowledge and experience could be interpreted as an expression of concern over the volume and ubiquity of the media content to which they are exposed. In the pre-digital era, industry and mass media publications were harder to access; in the current era, a veritable cornucopia of media content is accessible at all times: walking to work, on the desktop, in bed at night. In response to exposure to a torrent of creative advertising exemplars, the authorship of a particular idea is capable of being obscured, a phenomenon that may lead to the subconscious replication of ideas discussed by participants in this study. This is however just one possible explanation for the desire of participants to avoid digital media content until a new idea is formed, the nature of how information is structured by search engines and the social web is also worthy of consideration.

There has been a considerable shift in the structuring of information that is drawn into the creative process with mass media approaches to filtering based on individual editorial policies largely being subsumed by algorithmic gatekeeping (Bozdag [ 7]). Digital media intermediaries including Google, YouTube and Facebook have emerged to help users manage the expansive volume of information available in the online environment through the application of personalisation algorithms that tailor online content to the individual. If we use Google search as an example, personalisation presents a distinctive form of media bias as information is filtered by search engine algorithms based on a profile of the user’s previous online behaviours and, as a result, limits access to online content that sits outside these invisible boundaries (Pariser [16]). An implication of algorithmic gatekeeping is that individual searchers with similar profiles, such as those working as art directors and copywriters in particular geographic areas, will be exposed to similar digital media content. When industry news and examples of ‘cutting edge’ creativity are prioritised by search-based digital media, the ‘echo chamber’ nature of the advertising industry is intensified. Creativity is shaped by the rules and procedures established by the field; however, prioritisation of this information across digital media platforms and a narrowing of access to broader cultural influences is problematic. According to the systems model of creativity, a broad filter is more open to innovation, while a narrow filter can ‘starve a domain of novelty by not allowing enough new ideas’ and thus serve to maintain the status quo (Fulton and Paton [11], 38). This development indicates a transformation in the structuring of information drawn into the creative process, one that is capable of intensifying concerns about the insular nature of the industry.

Another strategy participants mentioned as a means of avoiding the negative influence of digital media use was to undertake research on an on-going basis rather than when they are specifically responding to a client brief. However, the personalisation of digital media content also shapes the incidental and non-task-specific research practices that are vital to the creative process. According to Fulton and Paton ([11]), a relationship exists between domain accessibility and the speed with which novel variations are produced. While digital media delivers access to the domain in ways that previous media could not, its use also has the potential to impose less obvious constraints on access to cultural representations. Platforms such as Google, Facebook and YouTube filter online content by pre-empting the user’s intention based on their profiles of that person’s previous online experiences. Yet this prediction of intent may conflict with the goals of a particular research task. For instance, practitioners spoke of using social media to identify human insights that could spark the development of novel ideas. Yet are these insights drawn from beyond what Pariser ([16]) describes as ‘filter bubbles’ – spheres of algorithmically shaped online experience in which there is limited interaction with views and ideas that different to our own? Another potential outcome of algorithmic gatekeeping is the removal of serendipity, the unexpected or accidental encounters with information that can trigger novel associations that practitioners said they stored away for future use. By filtering online content based on a dossier of information about the user, search-based media places the user on a particular knowledge-gathering pathway based on procedures that sit below the surface. The systems model approach of understanding creativity suggests the production of novel outcomes is more difficult to achieve when the rules and procedures of the domain are not made clear (Fulton and Paton [11]). In the case of algorithmic gatekeeping, the limited transparency offered by digital media platforms with regard to information structuring is capable of obscuring practitioners’ understanding of research practices that enable or reduce access to diverse sources of knowledge and inspiration. It is worth noting that while many practitioners in this study spoke about the limiting nature of digital media use during the creative process, all stated that it was used for research practices and commonly discussed how it served as a ‘safety net’ when knowledge and experience were exhausted. As such, greater awareness of the ‘rules’ that dictate algorithmic gatekeeping of search-based digital media can only serve to bolster the production of advertising creativity.

Rather than merely serving conduits to information, digital media platforms are increasingly becoming active participants in the development of evaluation tasks. The development of a series of new associations that eventually inform a novel idea is the result of both conscious and subconscious actions (Sawyer [18]). When Google search, for instance, is employed in the creative process as a means of triggering inspiration, a number of associations are made on behalf of the user and presented as suggested search terms. Say, for example, a practitioner was conducting research for a photocopier client. Entering the term ‘photocopier’ may result in a list of suggested search terms including ‘photocopier fail’. If selected, the search results could include a video of an office worker photocopying his backside, captured by a security camera, being provided and thus an association is absorbed based on decisions made by the search engine and initially below the surface of the user’s awareness. This has the potential to limit the novelty inherent in the resulting advertisement if creatives working on similar client projects at different agencies are exposed to the same ‘new’ association at the same time. When this occurs, a fundamental condition of creative advertising, the achievement of a novel or surprising effect, is reduced. This is of course not to say that participants in this study said they exclusively use Google search as a means of developing new ideas; if search engines do have an influence on the development of new associations in this fashion, it is likely to be one of a large number of new associations that are developed as practitioners draw knowledge from the domain. It does, however, point to an influence on the creative process that is unique to the involvement of digital media as a research tool.

An unanticipated use of digital media in the creative process emerged during interviews when participants described their deployment of Google search to check the originality of creative concepts. Some participants in this study described the ‘Google check’, the use of the search engine to survey the domain to determine if a ‘new’ idea has already been applied in an existing advertisement. When this occurs, Google search emerges as a judge of creative concept originality with its use revealing the value placed on originality by practitioners during a period of change in their everyday work actions. Interestingly, rather than merely being a means of transmitting information from the domain to the creative practitioner, it serves as a member of the field – an expert on advertising originality. This presents a contemporary example of how Google search enables creativity by reducing the possibility of idea replication and could also be viewed as a strategy to overcome the negative influences of digital media use. Yet this action simultaneously has the potential to inhibit creativity. For instance, one participant spoke of conducting an ‘overnight’ test to evaluate the quality of an idea or to allow it to be refined. The ‘Google check’ emerges as a form of verification that has the potential to crowd out other slower evaluative measures that rely more on the practitioner’s knowledge of the field. It is worth noting that the overnight test may have allowed further conscious and subconscious work to the completed on a creative concept, something the immediacy of a Google check does not necessarily accommodate.

This article has examined practitioner perceptions of digital media use during the creative process through the lens of the systems model of creativity. This approach has revealed a series of digital media affordances with the capacity to both enable and constrain the production of creative advertising. Digital media was consistently discussed by participants as providing access to sources of inspiration and knowledge in ways that previous media could not. Yet these creatives, particularly generalist practitioners, commonly stated that exposure to digital media content prior developing their own ideas led to ‘derivative’ work. Strategies described to limit this outcome included an avoidance of digital media at certain phases of the creative process and the ‘Google check’ to evaluate the originality of an idea. The identification of these strategies provide insight into the changing nature of a specialist form of creative practice in the digital media era, yet questions remain about the extent to which they counter the algorithmic gatekeeping inherent in search-based platforms. It is worth noting that digital media was commonly employed by participants as a ‘safety net’ when personal experience was exhausted and for non-task-specific research to collect sources of inspiration for use in future work. As such, the algorithmic shaping of information fed into the creative process emerges as an influence that while avoided in some instances continues to reshape ideation by simultaneously opening and narrowing access to the cultural representations. While this transformation appears to be tacitly recognised by participants, the lack of transparency surrounding the algorithmic gatekeeping employed by ubiquitous digital platforms obscures changes in the way information is structured and thus gathered by creatives from the domain in which they operate.Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.ORCID

Richie Barker

Notes on contributor

Richie Barker (Ph.D. from Monash University) is a lecturer in communication with the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Melbourne. His research explores technological and sociocultural influences on the production of creative advertising in the network society era.References

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