From reading Econsultancy’s recent Top 100 Digital Agencies report it’s clear that to some extent the industry is in good health, with a positive future outlook and strong growth.

Yet despite the strong headlines, popping the digital hood and looking under the bonnet, there’s a sleeper issue that could prevent us taking growth up a gear into 2020.

For despite growing knowledge and evidence as to why creativity is critically important for commercial success in our industry, there has also been a widespread increase in short-term thinking and objective setting.

The tyranny of short-termism

This tyranny of short-termism spreading across our industry overlooks and undervalues the importance of creativity, in turn minimising innovation and ‘thinking different’ and, at worst, actively creates suspicion around the benefit of strong creative ideas.

There’s a compelling accumulation of hard evidence supporting highly creative communications work, yet only a small percentage of brands consistently buy and run work in this mould, the kind which produces the most effective work.

By effective, I mean where the return on investment in creativity has been short-term significant increases in sales and – long-term – greater market share, higher share price and a reduction in price elasticity. And by creative, I mean work that is distinctive, well branded, memorable, emotional and – at some point – famous.

The bias towards short term objectives has found a very willing accomplice in efficiency metrics that appear, on the surface, to prove that everything is going to plan and no change is required. Short-term results are often easy to stick with. They are relatively simple to produce, they are rational, and they are easy to understand.

Gathering this kind of short-term evidence is deceptively seductive but it’s the wrong kind of data to inform the kind of brand building the industry needs. The same way retailers who focus solely on footfall are missing the wider picture, so too a focus on the ‘quick win’ data may feel more efficient, but it is not more effective.

Beware the effectiveness death spiral

And deep danger awaits. The short-term focus on efficiency, at the expense of longer-term commercial objectives, is effectively locking an increasing number of brands into an effectiveness death spiral. Incrementally getting better at delivering day-to-day sales, against a very small audience who are ready to buy. Brands are walking themselves into obscurity.

In a recent article in Marketing Week, the global media director of Adidas, Simon Peel, made a potent case for the danger of becoming what you measure. Historically Adidas relied on a simplistic attribution model focused on last-click performance, with no brand tracking, or means to assess longer-term accumulative effects on how people felt about the brand.

As such, the measurement methodology made the business pursue cost cutting rather than building a powerful brand – which has dire consequences for predicting future sales and commercial growth.

Peel went on to explore how he had helped Adidas regain a focus on the brand, delivered through big emotional work and measured through econometrics.

The evidence and means of collecting and using econometrics remains open to all; more marketers need to follow the path Adidas has taken to use marketing to convert in the short-term and, critically, build success for the long-term.

Shrinking time for reflection breeds dull experiences

Beyond marketing communications, the shrinking time for reflection and imagination means that many brand, product and service experiences offer people efficiency and ease-of-use, but are dull, forgettable and indistinct from other brands.

There are times when speed and ease of use are critical; yet there are many where the brand volume needs to be turned up to offer people distinct, memorable and emotional experiences, where the brand is given dramatic form and function though applied creativity.

Devising interfaces, interactions and other points of connection with brands, using technology, is suffering precisely the same issues as digital and communications; though in reality there should be no meaningful difference, as the experience should be everything.

In many organisations, the teams responsible for originating, running and evaluating websites, apps and the like are insufficiently connected to other key areas of the business. This could be those responsible for the brand, or the more traditional media, or sales, or even operations.

Investing in creativity is paramount

The problem is compounded when objectives across these teams aren’t aligned, in hierarchical service of macro-commercial objectivities or, worse, are in direct conflict with each other. Either way, they share the growing trend for objectives to be short-term.

As with the tyranny of short-termism that is harming the effectiveness of communications, the same mentality and methodologies are limiting the returns from digital platforms, which are increasingly dominated by optimisation focused multi-variate testing, which rewards functional micro-changes to experiences – and keeps the big emotional, memorable and more potent experiences at bay.

If the industry – whether that’s agencies, brands or consultancies – is to continue to thrive and grow, it is of paramount importance that it unites, and makes a collective argument for investing in creativity and building the commercial case for how inventive thought, more than any other factor, will ultimately produce the most profound returns on investment. It’s no longer just the preserve of creative agencies to fly the flag for creativity – it’s on all of us.

Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies report