Over-engineering kills creativity, doesn’t it?

by Christine Beardsell

Creative Code and Content
Jul 1 · 7 min read

[Eine deutsche Version des Artikels gibt es hier.]

During my career I have led creative teams across very different-shaped agencies; from digital and social, to a traditional creative, and even a big media-buying agency network. While my role as a creative leader has always been centrally focused on creative excellence, what I have found in my past 20 years is there are just as many different forms of creativity as there are different shapes to agencies. Strategic methodologies and approaches to coming up with an idea can exist in just as many shapes and sizes, too, depending on our end goal.

To know whether over-engineering can kill creativity, we have to understand what being “over-engineered” means then apply this to the many forms creativity has taken on in modern marketing. According to Merriam Webster, to over-engineer means “to engineer (something, such as a product) to have more functions, capabilities, etc. than are necessary or desirable.”

In applying this to the world of marketing and communication, two design elements particularly stand out: the strategic approach and the operations model. When one of these elements is mismatched to the product (or creative output!) you are aiming for, then over- or under-engineering can occur. Applying the definition to the new shapes creativity has taken, I would place creative tasks into four hero categories — The Big Idea, The Campaign, Editorial Content and Newsrooms — each requiring its own unique strategic approach and process to achieve success yet at times, are interdependent.

The Big Idea

Probably one of my favorite over-used creative terms and often coveted and hailed as solving every brand’s business problem. Every aspect of creativity borne out of this Big Idea is made to appeal to the masses and niche audiences alike, allowing the brand to be understood, celebrated and — of course — loved, shared and purchased by all.

Some Big Ideas though aren’t really Big Ideas at all, they’re just campaign ideas that have a life span of a 3 month media budget. To truly be a Big Idea, or what we like to call a Long Idea at C3, is actually one that positions a brand in a meaningful, memorable way that lasts and lives in many forms.

Strategically, this requires an understanding of the brand’s product and market, and the wider cultural context and audience we want to appeal to. They require time and space to ponder possibilities, plus a strong relationship with a client and brand to really get behind its purpose and place in culture. Long-term big ideas require over-engineering to then strip back and get to the core of what really matters to the brand and to the audience. If this one creative task is done right, all others will fit easily into place.

The Campaign

Often used synonymously with “The Big Idea,” campaign creativity really deserves its own special place in the world of marketing. Until the recent proliferation of digital, marketing and advertising traditionally took this shape of creative thinking. If a brand has a message, product or service for an audience to see, feel, or take action, campaign creative thinking is likely required. The end shape could be anything from a TV ad, to radio, print, OOH and now multiple online formats. It doesn’t have to be sustainable or encompass every channel like a Big Idea, but still needs a playground — a phrase or sentence that brings consistency across all that is created, like a tagline or hashtag.

The Campaign risks being “over-engineered” as some campaigns, for instance TV ads, offer just one chance to get it right, so requires time, research and strategic thinking into what exactly this creative output as a whole needs to say, do and how it can stand out. Others need to be partly formed but allow for some interaction, like Instagram campaigns built around sharing.

Campaign creativity should distinguish the difference between the needs behind various campaigns or risk creating a TV spot that is under-engineered and can’t compete for attention — or a social post that is over-engineered and feels forced or not open for engagement.

Editorial Content

Content creation has often taken a back seat to other forms of creativity or supports heavily branded Big Ideas and Campaigns, but as digital has made it harder to reach audiences, a shift in power has started to occur. Editorial Content is now a key — or the key — aspect of marketing. Whereas The Big Idea and Campaigns have to big up the brand, editorial content has to cater to the audience’s needs. A brand has to play a credible role in culture or add (ideally, unique) value to people’s lives, so it’s important to have a content strategy; a story the brand can tell in any format, for any channel.

If it connects well to the brand, with time and a build-up of trust, Editorial Content could even supersede more traditional ad campaigns. When a content strategy is engineered well up front, it allows for sustainable output of creative content over a long period of time; tapping into cultural moments, topics people care about and want to subscribe to, share, talk about or act upon. A clear tone of voice allows content to feel natural and organic for its format and channel.

Editorial output requires a similar team set-up to publishers, plus a governance model for review phases based around a content calendar — the central tool to ensure plans for topics and channels are followed and creative teams execute the plan in unison. An editorial board establishes a smooth sign-off process and creative collaboration to avoid too many layers of people or an over-engineered end result!


As content creation and a publishing mindset has moved to the forefront of marketing, brands compete for attention in real-time. The constant stream of information flowing through social channels has created an obsession with anything new, to be the first to discover, post and share, feeding the potential and desire to be seen, creating a never-ending cycle. A newsroom is always on, making it susceptible to being over-engineered.

One potential mistake in developing a newsroom is to use brand-planning methods instead of a strong content strategy base. This leads to over-engineering each client request, applying too much of the brand needs instead of audience needs, using brand- product-oriented language. Content must have themes as creative guidance for a cohesive brand story that’s relevant to people to gain and hold their attention.

The need to be agile and pivot with new waves of information requires a smart team set-up and governance model. Creative, strategy and client services teams should collaborate closely, plus a tight approval process means a client, too, should sit regularly with the core team. Creativity follows themes established by a content strategy, but data takes a stronger strategic lead. Harnessing and analyzing data, making smart decisions around optimizing and changing direction is key. Strong governance between creative thinkers, data analysts and client team creates a newsroom with creative sign-off daily or hourly as needed, depending on audience behavior.

Without this, a newsroom is susceptible to over-engineering: too many approval loops and lengthy concept-to-posting process, resulting in content that isn’t topical and no longer relevant — and the brand suffers as engagement and sharing plummets.


Creativity within marketing today is more diverse than it has ever been. Beyond creating big ideas, campaigns, editorial content and newsrooms, agencies must also create ideas that compete with tech companies. Creative technology and innovation around services, utilities and applications are even becoming the norm. With such a diverse, ever-changing landscape, it is important to recognize differences between creative needs, apply the right strategic approach and organize the right team around it for delivery — and that creative tasks are often interdependent. Over-engineering happens when you mistake one form of creativity for another or when strategic links between them are ignored or forgotten. But ultimately, the audience will determine the success and results of our creativity.

Sounds interesting? Talk to us!

Christine Beardsell

C3 Chief Content Officer

Creative Code and Content

Written by

Europe’s leading content marketing network & Content Marketing agency of the year 2016 (CMA).