I’ve been to a lot of media and tech events over the past few years, and at each one I hear all about how people want to create cool stuff, improve people’s lives and change the world. I don’t doubt people’s ingenuousness and good intentions but I’ve often felt the presence of a big pink elephant in these rooms. Which is that the reason people organize, attend and speak at these events isn’t just about inspiration, but because we’re all fundamentally interested in how to make money.

Commerce and creativity have always been interlinked. From Shakespeare and Edison, to Dylan and Jobs, the history of art, culture and ideas has been defined by debates about authenticity vs. selling out, populism vs. purity. As content creators, marketers and entrepreneurs we’re faced with this tug-of-war throughout our work lives – consider mixed-message titles like “Executive Creative Director” and “Chief Creative Officer” or terms like “show business” and “brand storytelling.”

In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer lays out various examples of creative genius in business, art and entertainment, including an enterprising 3M engineer’s invention of masking tape and Dylan’s game-changing composition of “Like a Rolling Stone”. As far as the brain is concerned, Lehrer says, there’s no difference between creating for the sake of commerce and creating for creativity’s sake. Both masking tape and musical masterpiece are products of the same neurological apparatus.

Still, it seems clear to me that as a culture we tend to value seemingly “pure” examples of creative pursuits over those driven by commercial interests. Yes, Steve Jobs’ ingenuity has been equated with Albert Einstein’s and John Lennon’s, but Jobs isn’t just vaunted for founding the world’s most valuable company, but for doing so despite the fact that he famously “never did it for the money.”

To help us unpack the complex relationship between creativity and commerce, I reached out to a cross-section of designers, musicians, filmmakers, writers and marketing types, asking them how they strike a balance between commercial and creative thinking and if these two pursuits have ever come into conflict in their work. I was surprised to find that their answers fell more or less neatly into three categories: those who see creativity and commerce as perfectly compatible, those who strive to broker a compromise between the two, and those who cultivate decidedly non-commercial outlets to satisfy their creative needs.

“Creative thinking is commercial thinking”

Cindy Gallop

Cindy Gallop served as Chairman and President of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty before reinventing herself as a web entrepreneur with projects like Make Love Not Porn and If We Ran the World. Gallop is decidedly in the “no conflict” camp when it comes to the relationship between commerce and creativity. In fact, she thinks many content creators sell themselves short on the commercial front.

“I am a big believer that everyone should realize the financial value of what they create,” Gallops says. “I feel this particularly strongly because my background is theatre and advertising – two industries where ideas, creativity and hard slog making those ideas and creativity come to life are massively undervalued, including by the creators themselves.

So my creative thinking is commercial thinking. The consultancy work I do for clients is designed to build their brands while making money, and my own ventures are designed with clear business models at their core from day one.”

Andrew Davis

Like Gallop, Andrew Davis sees creativity as the essential ingredient in successful client work and insists that “the more creative it is, the more successful it is.” Davis is Chief Strategy Officer at Tippingpoint Labs, a Boston-based branded content agency. Before that, he worked on the Muppets brand at the Jim Henson Company.

Davis says that the key to creative freedom within a corporate context is understanding what your client stands for. “It’s only when we haven’t understood their core values or when they can’t express them very well that we’ve been shot down in flames,” he says.

For example, Davis’ agency once pitched a campaign to GPS manufacturer TomTom that involved staging a “zany road trip across the United States.” The idea was to demonstrate that if your GPS can take you to the “World’s Largest Ball of Paint” (it exists, in Indiana), it can get you anywhere.

But it turned out that TomTom wasn’t interested in highlighting TomTom’s handiness for the holidays; the brand wanted to promote the technology’s usefulness in everyday life.

“The meeting ended with this awesome creative idea that we would never leverage,” Davis says.

“Art that doesn’t require compromise becomes self-indulgent”

Reanna Evoy

Reanna Evoy is the Art Director for ALDO, the global shoe brand. At first she seems to join Gallop and Davis in seeing commerce and creativity as complementary. “I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” she says. “If it looks good and it is on brand, ultimately the customer/client will have a positive reaction.”

But Evoy also introduces another element to the commerce vs. creativity conversation. Compromise. She acknowledges that there are occasions when the two pursuits come to a head and suggests the solution is to find a middle way.

“There have been countless times when business decisions have outweighed my artistic direction,” she says. “Call it ‘make the logo bigger’ syndrome. It happens all the time. Even straight-up budget considerations can put pressure on a project.”

Helen Klein Ross

As someone who straddles both the agency and literary worlds, Helen Klein Ross has mixed feelings about the idea of compromise. Ross is a former creative director, widely read blogger, and the unofficial Twitter voice of Mad Men’s Betty Draper (a role that she’s parlayed into a boutique agency called Brand Fiction Factory).

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Ross says. “We’re always writing in the service of something, no matter what platform we’re writing for… the creative and commercial always have to be pretty much linked.”

But in her literary life Ross seems less compromising. For instance, she once wrote a poem that contained a four-letter word. Several editors offered to publish the poem on the condition that she drop the profanity, but she felt that doing so would weaken the poem.

“I had to decide which I wanted: a published poem or a good poem. I left the word in. And the poem was published.”

Frederic Bohbot

Lucky for Ross, she didn’t have to compromise her vision in the end. But for Frederic Bohbot, an independent filmmaker who produces feature-length documentaries for the CBC and other Canadian broadcasters, compromise is “the name of the game.”

“As a producer, the balance that I need to find is between the director’s creative vision and the broadcaster’s generally less creative desires,” Bohbot says.

While Bohbot is critical of “broadcasters who fear that at the first instance of demanding thought, the viewer will change the channel,” he concedes that compromise isn’t always a bad thing. “I do think that most art that doesn’t require compromise becomes self-indulgent, which we have been the ‘victim’ of as well.”

“Living in two worlds means I don’t have to compromise either one”

Jay Vidyarthi

Jay Vidyarthi is at a crossroads. Last year he left his full-time gig as a User Experience Designer at Yu Centrik to pursue a graduate degree at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology.

Since then, he’s made a name for himself as a design expert at TEDActive and as the creator of Sonic Cradle, a unique synthesis of music, meditation and technology. The project earned him an invitation to exhibit at TEDActive this year, which he says led to potential investors.

With his studies winding down Vidyarthi plans to send applications to what he considers the four leading institutions in his field: MIT, Stanford, Google and Ideo. You’ll notice that the first two are academic institutions that will allow him to pursue his creative impulses unimpeded by commercial interests, while the second two are commercial brands, albeit notoriously creative ones. In other words, Vidyarthi finds himself at the intersection of creativity and commerce.

To Vidyarthi, creative and commercial pursuits aren’t perfectly compatible, nor are they opposing forces that necessitate compromise. Both are vital, but each in its right place and time.

“Think of it like a wave moving back and forth,” he says. “You don’t want to be in the middle, you want to go with the flow and make sure the creative and commercial sides of your practice are up to date but not overshooting the equilibrium.”

Ron Tite

In addition to his design work, Vidyarthi is a prolific musician. And while he says he’s been able to “maintain that equilibrium” as a designer, he’s had a harder time balancing his creative instincts with commercial ambitions when playing in rock bands.

“I immediately get shot off balance whenever I’ve tried to commercialize my music. Maybe it’s too close to me to let go of. But the minute I start thinking about growing an audience, I lose my creative spark.”

That’s why Ron Tite, a former Executive Creative Director at Euro RSCG who now works as a consultant, moonlights as a standup comic. In fact, it’s why so many of us – from cab-driving novelists to saxophone-playing politicians – have side projects (or, to use a less pretentious term, hobbies).

“When I simply want to express myself creatively with no regard for commerce, I do a comedy show,” Tite says. “I do it to do it and don’t care whether there’s money at the end of it all. Living in two worlds means I don’t have to compromise either one.”

The relationship between commerce and creativity is at the heart of C2-MTL, a global conference that takes place May 22–25 in Montreal. As an official media partner, Sparksheet will bring you exclusive content before, during and after the event. 

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