The industrial revolution mechanised previously craft-based activities, and since then machines have become more and more involved in creating the world around us. But until a few years ago, this mechanisation didn’t affect those of us in the creative industries – after all, our imagination and skills couldn’t be replicated by a machine.
The internet has changed all of that. In some cases it has allowed computers to take on tasks that were previously only done by humans, by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning and breaking them into discrete tasks. You can now get computer-written journalism, which use algorithms to bring together data and organise it into a rudimentary article. In the US, stories about minor earthquake reports are now routinely created and published, based on information supplied by the US Geological Survey. It isn’t much of a stretch to see short sports reports written based on player data and profiles, avoiding the need to send a reporter out to lower league matches.
However the biggest threat or opportunity to the creative industries is that the internet and digital technology has broken down the barriers around previously specialist occupations. Take photography. In the past only professional photographers could afford the equipment needed to create (and manually develop) arresting images. Now, similar levels of performance are available in a smartphone, and PhotoShop can do the rest. News stories frequently use amateur shots from bystanders who happened to be in the right place at the right time, adding extra depth to articles. Design and PR are both equally affected. Anyone can set up as a web designer or copywriter, without necessarily needing to undergo lengthy training.
In many ways this is a good thing – the internet has democratised creative industries that were previously off limits to most of us and enables more people to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas. It uncovers real talents who never previously would have been spotted, whether that is musicians on YouTube or specialist bloggers with a passion for their subject. But what it also does is amateurise previously professional occupations. How can a portrait photographer compete on cost with a bloke and an iPhone? Again, a copywriter on eLance charges much less than a professional. And the overall effect is that there is more stuff out there (words, pictures, videos of cute cats), but quality is far more hit or miss.
Before people start complaining, as someone that makes a living through PR and copywriting I obviously do have a vested interest here. But that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome more competition and the chance for more people to be creative. Far from it. However businesses need to understand that you get what you pay for – in the same way that fixing your car yourself is inherently riskier than going to a garage (unless you are a mechanic), working with amateurs opens you up to potential issues. Do they have insurance if something goes wrong, do they understand copyright, are they using legal images on your new website? There are 101 questions that you need to be sure of, before handing over your money. And it can be pretty obvious when a website has been put together by the managing director’s teenage son or daughter. Businesses therefore need to strike a balance between democratisation and working with amateurs if they are to stand out in an increasingly crowded global market.
Everyone is packing more into their working lives – and work is increasingly invading our leisure time. Apparently 69% of us cannot go to bed without checking email, and in the US, employees spend an extra 8.5 hours working every week compared to 1979.
And we’re continually being told to do more. But this normally translates into wasting our energies on ultimately unproductive activities such as sending and answering emails or sitting in endless meetings. McKinsey believe the average highly skilled office worker spends over a quarter of every day answering emails. The Dutch talk about vergaderziekte, which translates as ‘meeting sickness’. On one hand we make snap decisions to get emails out of our inbox and on the other fall asleep in day long meetings that seem to have no purpose.
It wouldn’t matter so much if this busyness translated into better business. But Robert Gordon of Northwestern University argued last year that the any additional productivity caused by the internet is much smaller than previous innovations such as indoor plumbing or electrification. Do you feel more productive?
For those of us in the creative industries the distractions and interruptions caused by modern business are particularly dangerous. And it is no accident that lots of startup ideas come from academia, where there is more time for uninterrupted research.
Creativity doesn’t come in the midst of an email or a meeting, but when you have time to think, unfettered by the ping of an incoming message hitting your inbox. Otherwise ideas come out half formed without reflection or perspective. Research at the University of California removed email from 13 people for five days and saw concentration levels rise and stress drop.
To win back our creativity and give time to thinking we need to regain control over our working lives. I’m no management guru, but here are five things that might help:
- Set aside thinking time. Leave your office, switch off your phone and just take an hour a week to focus, uninterrupted, on the big picture.
- Go for a run – get up from your desk and do some exercise. The added bonus is that if your company doesn’t have showers you won’t be invited to afternoon meetings.
- Use a pen and paper. Get your thoughts down longhand before opening up Word.
- Be ruthless. Turn down meetings (politely if possible) so that you have blocks of time to concentrate on what is important.
- Do less. Follow Ronald Reagan’s dictum “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but why take the chance?” Do you need to check your email – and do you actually need to send that email to 20 people, with another 10 cc’d.
Whatever industry you are in, creative or not, take a step back and refocus if you want to be happier, more productive and more creative. Easier said than done perhaps, but the potential benefits are vast.
For too many people a ‘creative business’ is a contradiction in terms – with lots of creative types unable (or even unwilling) to balance being artistic and actually making some money. Whether a designer, illustrator, artist or PR person there are many ways that the artistic temperament can get in the way of running a successful, money-making enterprise.
At this week’s CamCreative, James Cotton of onespacemedia entertainingly outlined some of the pitfalls that creative people plunge into when running a business. You can download the whole presentation here.
I’d split the eight areas he talks about into two big themes – not being confident in your own abilities and not thinking as a business. The first point is probably part and parcel of being creative, but if you spend your time comparing your £500 website design to the works of Leonardo da Vinci you’re not going to be satisfied. More and more time gets spent chasing perfection, destroying any chance of making money on a job.
Saying that creatives need to think in business terms isn’t about wearing a suit or spending your days ploughing through spreadsheets. Issues like not getting a decent brief, doing speculative work, saying yes when you should say no and poor administration aren’t making you into a slave of the machine – they are making sure you deliver creatively, avoid disputes and essentially get paid.
There’s something in James’ presentation for everyone in the industry. Most of all it should be a wake-up call for all creative businesses – time to realise you need to marry both sets of skills together if you are going to both wow your clients with brilliant work and pay the rent.
- 123 Tips: Developing Creative Business (abundanceadmin.com)