I travel the country giving talks, conducting workshops, and implementing strategies for small business. But many have noticed that I don’t look like a typical ad man. They normally tilt their head to one side and try to figure out why I don’t appear to be a typical corporate executive. I’ll let the cat out of the bag: before I was an “ad man” surrounded by all things marketing, I was a “music man.” I come from a musician’s background where I wrote music and recorded albums of original music, toured with my band, and made plans to take the world by storm…right up until Napster struck the first blows that would end the music industry and rock stardom as we knew it. At that point, I made a change to settle down with a family and embark on another chapter of my life.

The Art of Selling Out

Collage of B. Zachary Bennett playing various instruments
Collage of B. Zachary Bennett playing various instruments

When I was a child, I was into drawing and other visual arts, but it was the pursuit of a career in music and the recording arts that landed me in college where I learned analogue recording techniques, record production, and the first efforts at what would soon become a wave of digital creative technology. I learned video and editing on film cameras that would soon be taken over by digital dots and dashes that accomplished a much clearer picture and much more efficient editing. As I attended classes by day, I continued to work my music career with my band at every turn. I created album jackets and posters to promote our shows using software programs. And I studied contract law and marketing to carefully craft our band image to influence fans to embrace our lifestyle and our music. MTV still existed when I was in college and we shot several music videos and live performances.We promoted showcases, created merchandising, and participated in all the other aspects of music business.

Little did I know that all of that hands-on training would one day be used in the corporate and small business communities. Being commercial was akin to “selling out” and that was the utmost sin in rock’n’roll. But I learned that business is business, regardless of what industry you are practicing it in. And once I left the music business, I found myself at an ad agency creating work for major corporations, startups, and businesses of all sizes. The internet was brand new and web design was in its infancy. With my experience, I helped usher in the Digital Media Age to the world of branding and effective advertising at more than one agency. I was literally a “commercial” artist.

From Billboard to Ad Week

Creative brand strategy concept

Now, I also worked on the strategy side, but that is not what I want to talk about today. Today, I want to talk about my lifelong love of creative and how creativity is part of my very core in addition to the strategies and business sense that I am most known for. I believe that coming from a recording artist background gives me a unique perspective and provides a unique backdrop of experience for viewing how commercial creative works. The focus changes, but the world is very much the same. With a few major differences.

The main difference is the audience I was creating for. As a recording artist, you are mostly creating for yourself. Yes, a little bit for the fans and fans-to-come and a little bit for the record labels, radio promoters, and venues but primarily you are creating from what comes from inside yourself, for yourself.

Now in commercial creative, the skills are the same but that focus shifts from you to the client’s audience; from the record executives to the business owners, from the radio promoters to the board members, and from the venues to the sales professionals that will utilize your work in the marketplace. (Creative is industry lingo for artwork and Creatives is lingo for those that create the artwork—no matter if it’s video, graphic, music, copy, or otherwise.)

But the skills, discipline, and drive stay the same. Now that I own my own agency in Atlanta, Reformation Productions, I often have to explain to new creatives the difference between art for expression and art for business purposes. The main difference becomes that what they like as an individual is no longer what’s most important. Self-appreciation gives way to audience attraction and brand effectiveness. Consumer profiles and creative briefs become the new source of inspiration. Instead of writing lyrics and manifestos, I create brand copy, brand mission statements, and strategic plans.

Bad is Still Bad

"Masterful creative brings brand value" poster
“Masterful creative brings brand value” poster

But in both cases, one of many constants remains true. Bad creative is still bad. Bad performances are still not good enough. And in the end, the people are the judge.

Now, I still play the part of record producer directing creatives in their art. But it is called something else. Same role, though. It is the same function as a film director that’s managing the performances of many others to pull together a movie or tv show. But in all cases, whether our colleagues or critics appreciate it or not, the final say belongs to the targeted audience.

With that I urge business owners, CEOs, CMOs, CFOs, Director-level executives, board members, managers, graphic designers, videographers, composers, and everyone involved in the making of creative for business communications to remember—your preferences are not the point. Of course, it’s a bonus if you like it, but the preference of the target audience is the goal.

Experts, critics, and consultants can help you decide if it’s good creative. But the decisions should always rest on the targeted consumer profile and the preferences of your audience.

But bad creative is just bad. You can’t expect great things from mediocre or amateur work. Remember the poem called “Touch of the Master’s Hand.” For those that may not know it, the poem recalls an auction where a violin is being sold. It is tattered and old. Bids start very low. Then an old man comes up from the crowd, tunes and plays the violin, bringing it to life with a masterful melody that showcases beauty and draws the people in. When he is finished performing, the bids are much higher as the violin’s value is recognized. You see, without the artful performance, the violin is just a tool. A tool for communicating with its audience. It’s not the tool but the creative made by the performer from that tool that made the difference.

Give Credit where Credit is Due

"Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” quote by Casey Kasem.
“Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” quote by Casey Kasem.

For some reason, people are constantly trying to cut creative short—to not give it the respect it is due. Beauty matters. Craft matters. Skill matters. And no matter what you may think or what others may tell you—just “anyone” can not do it. And if your marketing campaign isn’t working, it could be strategy, but it is most likely bad creative.

I’m not sure how the art of communication and creatives began being perceived in this way. But before one looks down their nose at designers, they need to remember that God is a designer. He’s a creative. To many, He is known as The Creator. Aren’t you glad you have that opposable thumb, the ability to breathe and sustain life, and the ability to create life and multiply? These are all miracles of the divine Creative and how He made us and the world surrounding us. Many call it “Intelligent Design.” I didn’t come today to preach, my point is regarding the craft of design. Creativity deserves both respect and wonder.

So many business owners and executives get frustrated when their campaigns don’t work. But let’s think about it: Did they shortcut the process before pouring their investments behind it? Was the psychology on point? Was the creative on track? Was it aesthetically pleasing? Was it attractive and influential to their target audience? Did it have the structure behind it to ensure/handle success?

Yes, creative has value. Agencies may not win gold and platinum records, but we sell out concert venues on Black Friday. Every time you make a sale or gain a lead, that’s a hit record. And remember, “keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” Thank you, Casey Kasem.

Have any more thoughts on the value of commercial creative? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.