The Creative Age Of Business

When we hear the word ‘creativity’ we often think in colours, sounds and shapes, and we visualise things such as fashion, entertainment, art and design. Conversely, when we think of ‘business’, it usually brings to mind spreadsheets, offices, meetings and suits. We can’t help but separate the commercial and creative worlds into two distinct systems: the world of commerce and business is logical, structured, and intensely rational whilst the creative world is often spontaneous, dynamic and led by our emotions.

But while people’s instinct is to pull these systems apart, the pressure on businesses today is demanding the exact opposite – for creativity and business to be brought together, with creativity acting as a critical catalyst for business growth. The pressure to change is coming from a number of factors in an increasingly complex and demanding business environment, including the growing unpredictability of consumers, who pay attention to products and approaches that provide creative cut-through; the interconnection of more media channels, requiring more creative approaches to earning their attention; and the overall increase of competitiveness in business, which means that innovation is the lifeblood of companies who truly wish to differentiate themselves.

As a consequence, we are now experiencing the first signs of a major shake-up in the way that businesses operate – a ‘Creative Age of Business’, in which creative skills, tools, and ways of thinking are moved from the periphery and placed at the heart of the enterprise. And it is in Asia where this effect will be most felt over the coming decade.

It should come as no surprise then that the most forward-looking Asian businesses, and even governments, are embracing the power of creativity to breathe new life into their organisations and industries. As they look to devise new solutions and new ways of interacting with customers, the forward thinking CEO is starting to understand that the old models they relied on are increasingly defunct.

A growing body of research substantiates that creativity and innovation are critical to the success today. For example, a major study of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries concluded that the ability to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world requires creative thinking more than the attributes of rigour, management discipline, integrity and even vision.

The benefits are clear and manifold. In simple terms creativity delivers new ideas, and new ideas are the life-blood of brands and businesses. It’s our belief that the leaders who recognise, learn, instill, and nurture creativity within their organisations will experience not only the greatest returns, but will also be part of the leading edge, future-proofing their organisations for the times ahead. As Asia continues to grow, billions of dollars are at stake.

At Ogilvy, we have identified a number of principles that form the foundation of a successful creative business.


The goal of most corporations is to make money. Asian businesses have traditionally thrived on the low-cost production model, achieving fast and cheap manufacturing and service delivery. But that model is not sustainable, and more businesses are now looking for ways to add intangible value. When you travel across different parts of Asia, it will be clear the region’s economies are being transformed from a giant factory to a giant stage on which consumers are using their favorite brands to connect, advance their personal goals and influence others. Asian business leaders need to develop strategies that will sustain their leadership and growth into the future and fundamental to this is the need to embrace creativity as a business tool, and perhaps as part of a bigger purpose.

The Creative Age

The iconic Nano

India’s Tata Group, for example, believes that the primary purpose of a business is to improve the people’s quality of life, a philosophy from which some of its most recognized innovations were conceived. The Nano, also known as the ‘people’s car’, is now a subject of many management books. Just as socially significant in a country where clean water is in short supply is the company’s water filter Swach (the Hindi word for clean), which uses natural components such as rice-husk ash. This year, Tata expects to sell one million units of Swach, which costs only 999 rupees ($22.50) and won ‘gold’ at the Wall Street Journal’s Asian Innovation Awards 2010. “We are now considering taking the device to other markets, such as Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America”, says Mr. Sabaleel Nandy, head of Tata’s water purification business.

Building a creative culture requires business leaders who value creativity and understand the need to develop a philosophy and system that empowers their employees to think and act creatively. Creativity is not just about the execution of a brand idea or concept. Rather, it is something that needs to be embedded in the very core philosophy and practice of an organization.

Jackie Orme, CEO of the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says, “It is clear to us that Western organizations can learn from their counterparts in Asia. Perhaps the most striking for us is the value of balancing an aggressive drive for success with a long-term sense of corporate and community purpose.”

Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor who has devoted 30 years of her research to the study of creativity, adds, “The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business.”


A business relies on the creativity of its staff, and corporate leaders want to foster a culture in which everyone is motivated to produce novel ideas.

Consider the case of Shangri-La Hotels when the group was faced with the challenge of increasing revenues in the midst of a downturn. A decision was taken to build a strong foundation of engagement with the staff before they reached out to customers. The brand proposition needed to be built on a strategy that inspired staff, motivated them and made them proud to work at Shangri-La. Consequently, the staff became genuinely interested in being able to satisfy even the most demanding hotel guests.

Shangri-La became a model for its spontaneous and sincere interactions with staff. Staff talked about “treat[ing] guests like guests in our home.” Training materials emphasised “everything should come from the heart”. Trade partners said Shangri-La’s culture made it ‘different’—“staff have better personalities”. Loyal guests called Shangri-La “a part of the family”1. The guest was not King, but Kin, or family. The marketing campaign saw 66,000 people being oriented around the rallying call “It’s in our nature.” In less than a year, the campaign succeeded in generating heightened employee and guest engagement and enabled Shangri-La to beat its business objectives by more than four fold.

“For the longest time, creativity was considered the work of a genius operating alone. The cult of the designer held sway, with little attention being paid to the system that supports the creative genius,” Harvard Business School professor Mukti Khaire observes.

“That’s fine as long as a creative genius in a field like fashion design doesn’t need to enter the commercial arena. The perception exists that creative businesses can just start up, when in fact it takes a while for an entire ecosystem to actually generate an industry. There’s a construction of creativity that involves many other actors,” she added.


Entrepreneurs are deemed to be more creative than large, established corporations. Whilst creativity is said to be a product of chaos, the new approach to business creativity is about having a fluid culture where organisational workflows and systems have a proper place within for individual thinking.

Companies that value freedom and autonomy and encourage divergent thinking are more likely to succeed than those that are autocratic and overly systems oriented. People need time to soak up a problem and let the ideas bubble. They need to connect and exchange ideas with people within the same job functions, other colleagues and industry contacts. Fluidity and networking should be key parts of the creative process within organisations and across cultures.

For nearly a century, Cadbury Dairy Milk was seen in India as an English icon. People saw the brand as a foreign treat for kids. Yet, Indians are known for their sweet tooth, with the market completely dominated by local sweetmeat sellers and every celebration characterised by sweets consumption. It was the notion of fluidity that led to the creative idea – make Cadbury Dairy Milk synonymous with ‘meetha’, the local term for traditional sweets. A conscious choice was made to use the phrase in the context of celebratory moments, thereby giving consumers both the rationale and the occasions forconsumption. The business value of the campaign – chocolate penetration increased faster in five years (2004 to 2008) than in the decade preceding that.

Embracing Risk

The courage to embrace risk is key to stimulating creativity. Employees should be encouraged to step away from the confines of their established routines and out of their comfort zones, and the leaders have to show them the way.

Ogilvy was the first multinational agency to start operations in Mainland China in 1986. At the time, Shanghai was hardly the neon-lit metropolis that it is today and business pickings were slim. But Ogilvy Greater China Chairman T.B. Song had a vision in which he predicted a huge early mover advantage for the company. Clients could be educated about the commercial value of creativity whilst the fledgling media industry was crying out for ideas. That pioneering spirit has paid enormous dividends. Ogilvy has grown with its clients. China is now the world’s second largest ad market, and the WPP group dominates it.

Organisational processes must also show tolerance for mistakes and imperfections. Does Apple get every one of its products right 100% of the time? No. But the huge community of users helps the company iron out the creases.


AirAsia – Not the world’s most successful budget airline by chance

Fast Company voted AirAsia one of the top 50 most innovative companies in the world. AirAsia is not the world’s first low-cost airline, but it is certainly the most successful. How does the company stay on top where others have failed? The answer is that AirAsia positively embraces risk. It plies routes and flies out of airports not covered by mainline operators. It is interesting to note that the creative team at Air Asia hails from the music industry. You will never see the company’s founder Tony Fernandes in a suit. He prefers to wear T-shirts and caps to work like his staff, and this enables him to do away with hierarchy issues.


Modern brands need a proper ‘stage’ that will enable them to inspire consumers and build brand loyalty. China’s young population, the ‘Chuppies’, is not particularly fond of outdoor sports. It is not easy to find a proper place for outdoor activities within or around the city. Most people are too busy chasing their dreams to bother about physical fitness. For the outdoor brand The North Face, our task was to actively inspire Chinese consumers to embrace the outdoor lifestyle.

Our solution was “Don’t Sell the Gear – Stage the Experience of Exploration”. It was this feeling of exploration that we wanted Chinese urbanites to feel even if ‘outdoor’ to them meant just stepping out of their offices or apartments. The Red Flag Explorer Campaign

CAOB people

Red Flag Exploration Zone in action

achieved this by referencing the iconic flag planting done by explorers to mark an explored area. The Red Flag Campaign gave the audience virtual red flags through their mobile phones. The key was to keep moving, exploring and planting as many flags as possible. Participants were able to keep live scores on the event website. In parallel, brand experience stages were set up in shopping malls in Shanghai and Beijing. These consisted of a giant ‘Exploration Zone’ with rock climbing walls, live product displays and a brand exploration tunnel where participants could go on a journey of discovery about The North Face. A huge LED screen displayed the live countdown of the number of digital red flags planted around China. To generate the feeling of exploration and being ‘out there’, consumers could have their photos taken on green screens (Hollywood style) and have these superimposed digitally over famous scenery from the Arctic, Himalayas, and Grand Canyon.

The North Face’s sales nearly doubled as a result of the campaign. A total of 2.2 million people participated in the activity and over USD 2 million worth of free media coverage was generated. The return on investment for The North Face was a whopping 306%.

The best business leaders succeed because they bring theory to life. In the creative age of business, those with the courage and conviction to put ideas into practice will eventually reap the sweet fruit of success. They may have to work from failures and they should know that success does not always come from always having the right answers. It may be about asking the right questions.

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