Creative or Effective? You Decide

Very early in my working life, I was involved in advertising sales for a radio station.  Probably because I was pretty much a “blank slate” back then, I remember the first advertising seminar I attended like it was yesterday.

People who know me well, might smile (or roll their eyes) when I’ll repeat a sales or marketing principle I learned decades ago.  They are “on to me.”

At the first seminar, I learned, “Be effective, not just creative.”  Evidently, this was a real problem in the advertising world back then, and today as well.

The workshop leader mentioned the high percentage (I seem to recall it being 70%) of award-winning advertising considered a business failure by the companies behind it. In other words, an ad campaign created to increase sales or awareness, didn’t. It was attention-getting and lovely and won all sorts of awards, but it didn’t accomplish the goal for which it was intended.

The workshop leader asserted awards should only be given to ads which worked.

Still, ad agencies wanted the trophies, so they focused on creative instead of effective. Nothing like awards to deflect attention from a goal.

I recall the workshop leader giving examples of highly-effective advertising which was not exactly creative and certainly not award-winning, unless the creator of the ad coveted a tongue-in-cheek award by a group poking fun at poorly done ads.

But the ad worked and generated increased sales, so we needed to decide which path was more desired.

Today we explore this “creative versus effective” tension. One does not necessarily lead to the other and the two can be mutually exclusive, not always, but often enough to ask the question which side you would rather be on.

Creative vs. Effective: The Book Pitch

Frequently, I receive a book proposal from an aspiring author which confuses me. What did they want from me? Are they looking for a mentor? Endorser? Friend?

I assume there are people advising aspiring authors to use the cover letter to “spin a tale” in an attempt to catch the attention of an agent, but maybe start the creativity in the second paragraph?

Dear Mr. Balow,

You and I will change the world together. My book will make the crooked paths straight and bring joy to all who are part of it.

That’s flattering, but I am already married.

Or how about this:

 Oh Dan,

Death. Pestilence. Flies on corpses. War is the canvas on which evil writes his tale of woe…

What if I just finished lunch?

Maybe instead, make the cover letter an actual personal letter? (Now there’s a thought) Maybe even professional?

Dear Dan,

I enjoy all the bloggers on your agency website and have read them for months. After reviewing your profile as an agent, I feel you would represent my work well.  Here’s why…

Creative vs. Effective: The Book Itself

Many years ago, I recall a successful author speaking about their many books at a sales conference saying, “You know, it’s funny. The books I’ve written which have sold the most were not my best work. Those for which I was most excited, haven’t sold well at all.”

They paused, then said, “I think my new book is my best work ever.”

A tumbleweed blew through the meeting room and crickets chirped in the background. A vulture circled overhead.

Creative vs. Effective: Book Marketing

Every author would love to have a highly creative marketing plan for their book.

Or would they?

Wouldn’t you rather see a plan which sells a lot of books? Even if it weren’t particularly creative?

Sometimes (not always) an author might desire marketing plans filled with things no one has ever tried, but if pressed, would rather just sell more books. Often, the most effective business marketing strategies are relatively boring.

Do you want to be creative or sell books? Often, the two are not in the same plan. But it is nice when they are.

It’s about balance. Be creative and effective. Make a point and make it stick by the manner in which you present it. Usually, the best recipe has a nice combination of each ingredient.


18 Responses to Creative or Effective? You Decide

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott March 6, 2018 at 3:37 am #

    I once worked for a company whose logo was more recognized than its name. The “creative” guy doing the brochure layout thought the logo interfered with his beautiful design. He used the tiniest version, sparingly at that. My boss wadded up the brochure and threw it across the room. I don’t know if the designer won an award. I do know that he “created” himself right out of a job.

    Lord, give me the wisdom to know the difference between “selling out” and selling. between practicality and compromising my values, between thinking too highly of myself and serving you and others. Amen.

  2. Avatar
    Judith Robl March 6, 2018 at 5:48 am #

    Being a central Kansan from birth to old age, I loved this picture:

    “A tumbleweed blew through the meeting room and crickets chirped in the background. A vulture circled overhead.”

    However, the editor in me would dispense with the crickets. Crickets chirping are a hopeful sound in my book. That author’s statement just decimated any hope at all. Things listed in threes are hopeful. Just the two statements let it drop with a thud.

    Your posts are always entertaining and informative. When I have something to pitch, you might need to duck and run. Just saying…

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow March 6, 2018 at 5:59 am #

      In defense of crickets 🙂 maybe their inclusion was an unconscious attempt to show the hopeful attitude of a good sales staff!

      The more I think about it, most conferences are a combination of, “This is great!” and “We are going out of business next week.”

      I need to ponder this more…

      • Avatar
        Judith Robl March 7, 2018 at 1:11 am #

        You’re probably right, Dan. Gotta grasp at any hope, no matter how faint.

  3. Avatar
    Michael Torres March 6, 2018 at 6:10 am #

    Thanks, Dan, for articulating the tension. Someone once told me the definition of creativity was simply problem solving. Someone else told me there’s a difference between the aesthetic and the creative. One is about a value; the other is about getting something done. Semantics I guess. Thanks again.

  4. Avatar
    Elena Corey March 6, 2018 at 6:46 am #

    As a lifelong reader and writer, I follow your posts attentively. But I back away from the general premise that whatever works is good. (Of course, you didn’t say that, but that thought wasn’t denied, either.) And it is obvious that if something doesn’t work, proclaiming its goodness doesn’t count for squat.
    Within the past three days I’ve read two novels, each of which I should have abandoned after the first 30 pages. The first one, a hardback, was long & pompous in its presentation, yet highly praised by reviewers. Its focus was soon revealed to be varieties of depravity—all treated casually, accompanied by consistently coarse language and an overly telegraphed denouement. I felt dirty reading it & wondered how it had managed to garner consideration as timeless literature.

    The second was a best-selling beach read—a small paperback. Right from the beginning, though, it was apparent that the author had no embarrassment about using trite metaphors, overusing many already overused phrases, and saying such things as ‘meeting up with’ rather than simply ‘meeting.’ As I should have expected, the plot wasn’t credible. The editing wasn’t perfect; a few sentences paraded themselves with final prepositions dangling.
    Starring in this bit of fluff was a heroine who seemed to have misplaced whatever ethical training she might have had. She offhandedly referred to ‘liberating a plush robe from a posh hotel;’ she stole pertinent evidence from a crime scene, she lied with impunity whenever it suited her purposes, and came across as indifferent to morality in the sexual realm. Yet, she was offered as a heroine—a potential role model for female readers. By contrast her older friends were staid, conservative and proclaimed to be ‘boring.’ Their most heinous offenses, in her way of thinking seemed to be indifference to fashion.

    Such writings comprise a large portion of what gets published. We could shrug our shoulders and say, “Blame the culture; this is what mainstream publishers think readers want. It sells. That is why we have a Christian alternative.”
    I admit that I didn’t have to read such trivia-trash; I could have discounted the media hype. I could have been typing away, offering higher options for readers. Complaining that what works is not necessarily good hasn’t gotten Christian writers anywhere except turning inward, in ever smaller circles. Guilt pushes my awareness that staying silent tacitly allows such focus to be acceptable.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow March 6, 2018 at 7:23 am #

      I was thinking more narrow than you, but you make good points. As far as writing books is concerned, especially with non-fiction, salient points can often be obscured by an attempt to show literary prowess.

      Certainly, any book should be well-written, but balancing understanding with attention-holding is a challenge for every author. Same for school teachers!

  5. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 6, 2018 at 7:12 am #

    Great work, Dan.

    Don’t think outside the box. Build it bigger from within, working from a proven structure using the tools and help that are already at hand.

  6. Avatar
    Katie Clark March 6, 2018 at 9:51 am #

    I love this post. Very truthful, and helpful!

  7. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh March 6, 2018 at 11:36 am #

    Interesting comparison. We creative types, of which I are one, can confuse the issue. You put it in black and white. Your examples, though, seem more like ways the authors sought to impress or stand out from the crowd to capture your attention. The problem is, they stand out in a negative way. It’s good to know how authors’ shoot themselves in the foot. Your perspective brings the necessary attention to why this plays out against them. I wonder if one of the issues is the air of condescension (or arrogance) that can creep into writing . . . without the writer’s awareness. Words to the wise. Thank you.

  8. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson March 6, 2018 at 12:08 pm #

    Interesting article. I think being creative would go hand in hand with selling books, so yes, I believe they go together.

  9. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 6, 2018 at 2:24 pm #

    I woudl like to creatively effectively sell more books. Is that an option?

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow March 6, 2018 at 2:45 pm #

      Depends on your definition of “creative selling.”

      There are laws governing commerce you know!


  10. Avatar
    Robin Mason March 6, 2018 at 9:02 pm #

    methinks creativity in this instance, is best left to the story, and save the functional and effective for the selling

  11. Avatar
    Tisha Martin March 7, 2018 at 5:31 am #

    Dan, thank you for this timely blog post. Book proposals are nothing like writing the novel, for I’ve discovered I have to think a bit harder and tame my verbiage and sentence structure. All in all, though, proposals aren’t *that* hard, after I got over the initial shock of “What … now am I doing?” 😉

    And I’m really wondering about that sunglasses-wearing pineapple … it really could use a pair of flip flops next to it. Now that would be effective.

  12. Avatar
    example March 8, 2018 at 6:00 am #

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  13. Avatar
    Richard James Seibert January 27, 2019 at 6:34 pm #

    Mr. Balow

    I am new to finding an agent and a publisher. I am always having the self publishing thrown at me like it is the golden fleece and complete freedom in your written work. Stephen King started this nearly 20 years ago, for without agents and publishers such as yourself and Steve Laube all writers work will sit like pots on a stove waiting to boil and gathering dust. Three cheers for you and the Steve Laube agency.
    As an added note in speaking of Mr. King and other secular writers who have degrees in English and journalism why all the foul language and raw sex. If these writers are so eloquent why the usage of the language?

  14. Avatar
    Richard James Seibert January 27, 2019 at 6:43 pm #

    Dear Mr. Balow

    I neglected to add in my previous comment if Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, Ray Bradbury, HP Lovecraft as well as CS Lewis and John Bunyan and other famous writers before the 70’s are so popular. How is it that none needed use graphic sex or colorful metaphors in their work and why todays writers need to add them?

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