A creative director, an account manager, and a scientist walk into a bar. There’s no punchline here. These opposite professionals have more in common than you think. They share a drive for innovation and sharing new ideas with the world. Above all, they share a common creative process of experimentation. The creative process and the scientific method are nearly one in the same. They both approach problems through experimentation and observation. However, the scientific method provides a more structured, controlled approach.

Here lies the opportunity for creative agencies to become more like laboratories. As partnerships between creative and client service departments evolve, finding new ways to advance a client in their marketing efforts is always top of mind. Creative innovation; however, can be difficult to incorporate within a defined scope. Using the scientific method as a path for the creative journey anchors artists to the client’s business goals. Developing a hypothesis for a client problem can unlock both creative and strategic solutions. It serves as the first point of collaboration across disciplines. Applying systematic experimentation to creative projects facilitates data-driven creative improvements.

Creativity Starts with Defining the Problem

Defining the problem is the first step in the creative exploration process. When a client request comes in, it almost always prompts more questions. This is the first opportunity for creative collaboration across teams. Bringing together multiple perspectives at the start of a project can help identify and avoid strategic gaps in a project plan.

When presented with an initial problem, creative contributors can sketch a solution in their mind. The sooner these ideas start, the sooner contributors can ask questions and clarify the constraints. Scholars have outlined this as the “Innovators DNA,” composed of five core skills: questioning, observing, associating, networking, and experimenting.  The first four are commonly used within individual creative practices, such as brainstorming, but the last is a unique strategy that requires precise management of the other four skills.

Account managers facilitate this process as a part of their role. Managing client strategy, account managers have an eagle eye over the entire marketing mix. Using the creative skill of observation, account managers are in a unique position to identify business problems. Balancing long-term client goals, short-term project objectives, and overall client budget, account managers are skilled in gathering quantitative and qualitative data relevant to the problem.

Experts in the skill of networking, account managers play a crucial role in initiating collaboration across teams. In some cases, this is as simple as meeting with a designer. More complex projects might require additional strategists from media or UX to provide input on the approach. Together, the different teams, client, and account manager can all agree on the single problem to solve.

Throughout the initial collaboration, the third creative skill of questioning dominates. From the jump, individual contributors start to “solve” the problem in their head by envisioning the finished product. Like a polaroid, the solution takes time to develop. Some of these questions are answered in an instant, while others take time to understand. For instance, simply knowing the deliverable is a Facebook ad inherently answers questions such as medium, dimensions, software to use, timing of the ad and so on. Once these basic questions are answered, more surface. What do these ads need to communicate and how? Why do they need to communicate this? Like a curious child asking “why?” until there’s no other answer, creative questioning uncovers the inherent business problem.

Developing a Hypothesis for Your Creative Experiment

Traditionally, hypotheses are taught as if/then statements— “If I do X, then Y happens.” However, clients aren’t very keen on “if” statements when it comes to their expected results. To combat this, we take a statistical approach to the hypotheses and introduce a null hypothesis. Simply put, the goal of a null hypothesis is to disprove the status quo. Music to a creative’s ears! Instead of the traditional if/then statement, instead we can reframe it as: “If the status quo, X, is the best we can do, then this new iteration, Y, will not outperform.”  If X outperforms Y, then the status quo is accepted. If Y outperforms X, the status quo is rejected.

Setting up a creative experiment like this accomplishes two strategical objectives. First, it retains the status quo as a baseline for performance. This means that even if the status quo is rejected, it means that the baseline metrics were still achieved. This insulates a client’s business from the risk creative experiments impose. Secondly, it allows brands to explore their creative hunches and establish creative boundaries. As status quo creative is rejected and replaced, creatives can make changes one aspect at a time. Again, these hypotheses are best developed as a team to avoid blind spots when mapping the experiment.

Having the Ability to Experiment with Creative “Freedom”

A well-oiled creative process is based on a working hypothesis. Like bowling lane bumpers, constraints

allow creatives the freedom to zig-zag safely to the finish line. When experimenting with brand creative, such as in a media campaign, the null hypothesis gives designers guardrails for tinkering. For example, a working hypothesis might say that the status quo is customers are promotion-driven. A null hypothesis would say they are not promotion driven. To prove one or the other, a copywriter might operate an A/B test with email subject lines featuring a promotion. If the promotion-driven subject line outperformed the other, then the status quo would stay the same. In establishing a working hypothesis together, creative and client service team members can work separately toward the same goals. This instills trust in the creative process and confidence in the individual contributors.

Using Incremental Experiments to Close the Feedback Loop

As Thomas Edison famously said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” These incremental experiments allow brands to diversify their creative without disrupting existing performance. The value of this strategy lies in the learnings. Rejected null hypotheses help map creative boundaries for a brand. This can help guide designers to avoid future missteps and uncover new opportunities to evolve. Throughout this experimental process, account managers serve as a guide on the creative journey. They can help copywriters and designers renavigate toward the right path that’s in the interest of the client and brand.