Most of my colleagues wear t-shirts. Some of them wear dresses, turtlenecks, jumpers, jeans, shorts, or even overalls, depending on which way the fickle Melbourne weather turns. Almost none of them regularly wear suits to the office. But at the same time, they all always do.
‘Suit’, in advertising and marketing circles, is a relatively outdated term. It originally stems from the equally idealized and antiquated Mad Men era.
Traditionally, the term referred to someone who primarily worked in handling client accounts. The suit was someone who preserved relationships and maintained a polished impression for clients with million dollar budgets. Therefore, that person had to look a million bucks.
How? By wearing a suit.
Today’s ‘suits’ are typically Account Managers, Account Executives, Account Directors, and Client Service Directors. According to the Communications Council of Australia, they’re responsible for ‘assisting in strategy, through to writing the brief and overseeing the production.’
‘Suit’ is a term that’s linked with tactics, strategy, and careful analysis. It’s often positioned as the direct antithesis of another long-held agency persona: the ‘creative’.
The suit and the creative.
While the suit deals with achieving business objectives, the creative is traditionally imagined as someone free of the constraints of commercial or corporate realities.
The creative is concerned with craft, artisanship, and the relentless pursuit of purity in idea and application. Usually, they’re someone who works in design, art direction, copywriting, or creative concept development. The creative is free from the trappings of commercial business in every capacity, including clothes; they trade the suit for a t-shirt.
The story goes that suits are concerned with analysis, projecting outcomes, and strategy, while creatives care only for art and invention.
Think back to the ‘Get a Mac’ ads of the mid 2000’s. The entire campaign played off a distinction between similar stereotypes.
Although they may strike as being oddly familiar, each of these characters is enormously outdated.
Suit? Creative? They’re both dinosaurs.
Both personas are largely inapplicable in the reality of today. Like so many things in modern marketing and advertising, they’ve evolved and converged.
Welcome to your new wardrobe.
Digital—the broad stroke industry encompassing website design, search marketing, service design, content strategy, gamification, virtual reality, augmented reality, UX and development—is defined by flexibility and adaptation.
As a result, so are the people who work in it.
Everyone involved in the creation or maintenance of a good digital experience simultaneously adopts the perspective of both the suit and the creative. That’s because creativity and strategy are intimately interconnected as the two foundational ingredients of all truly great digital work.
Creativity without strategy is often called art. Strategy without creativity is usually called bland or pedestrian. Very few agencies will offer ‘art’ as a service, and zero would self-identify as being bland or pedestrian.
In a digital agency environment, creativity cannot be divorced from strategy and the two do not exist in isolation of one another. Ideally, every decision should be made with the equal influence of both.
The evolving role of the team member.
Given their mutually-constitutive role in agencies, creativity and strategy should be similarly ever-present in teams and team members. ‘Suit’ and ‘creative’ are far too static and singularly-focused to be relevant.
‘A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist’ – Buckminster Fuller.
Buckminster Fuller is largely correct, but he falls short in this appraisal. It’s not just designers, but everyone in the project team; we all fluidly shift and adopt multiple personas (and the associated costumes) in responding to a brief.
This rings true regardless of your role. It applies for frontend developers, backend developers, designers, producers, social media managers, copywriters, salespeople and project managers.
Everyone in the team wears a suit, because every single decision made, every couple of minutes, on any and every project, ultimately hinges on achieving a better business outcome for the project at hand.
The best way to achieve an improved business outcome is to better engage the end user. Wherever you feature within an agency environment, your job description can likely boil down to that primary objective: engage the end user.
Although we may not realise it as team members, most ‘makers’—people involved in the development and delivery of a project—are primarily concerned with honing a craft, using increasingly creative or inventive means to do exactly that.
Designers often dream of creating beautiful, streamlined products; copywriters hope to craft elegant and impactful content; developers seek to build well-functioning and reliable systems or interfaces; salespeople like to sell.
While they seem disparate in isolation, all of these pursuits are actually motivated by a singular intention—engaging a visitor, persona, audience member, or user, and helping them achieve a goal: buy, subscribe, read, share, or experience. Strategy simply guides the unrelated creative endeavours of the team towards a unified objective. It’s the shared logic that harnesses and guides the individual magic.
How is that relevant to me? I literally don’t wear a suit.
A good strategy connects a specific group of people with something they need, want, or will potentially find useful. Creativity is the ability to make valid connections between supposedly unrelated impulses.
When working on the development of a website, digital tool, or platform, team members consistently call on both of these instincts at once. It’s pretty impressive when you stop and think about it.
Whatever your role, you will likely make several decisions relating to the minutiae of your profession every day. Each decision, whether consciously or not, is strategically designed to better establish and maintain an organisation’s connection with a target audience. Your goal is to make an experience resonate with a user.
These choices may relate to more ‘artistic’ or ‘creative’ pursuits—a button styling, a colour palette, the movement style of a gif or SVG animation —but they are all influenced by appreciation of an overall project or product strategy: an understanding that your teammates are striving to engineer a certain outcome to achieve a particular goal.
For a writer, that could mean selecting a specific word out of a range of synonyms. If you’re working on a challenger-brand insurance website looking to establish a down-to-earth and personable tone-of-voice, you might decide to use conversational contractions—‘it’s’, ‘you’re’, ‘we’re’, as opposed to the formal versions: ‘it is’, ‘you are’, and ‘we are’. That’s a minor aesthetic decision in the grand scheme of a project, but it contributes to the strategy.
A successful strategy is the amalgamation of hundreds of miniature creative decisions.
You’re employing the craft-based focus of the creative, guided by the strategic nous of the suit. You might be wearing a t-shirt with a grammar pun on it, but you’re wearing a shirt, tie, and jacket underneath.
Or maybe you’re wearing a colourful, novelty creative suit jacket. Either way.
If you’re a designer, it could be the decision between a serif or sans serif font; it could be a particular navigation approach, a grid layout, or a choice of photography styling. Backend developers might select between PHP or Python.
A frontend dev might choose to employ a subtle hover state animation to convey an understated sense of luxury for a corporate website. Or, alternatively, they might go with a more pronounced and energetic transition if they’re working on the click-through to the purchase page for a child’s toy.
All of these seemingly insignificant judgements are simultaneously governed by the inner suit and creative, both in equal control.
These are artistic decisions of craft, determined by awareness and appreciation of a wider, shared strategic objective.
Each team member’s daily assortment of isolated choices accumulatively contributes to the overall impact of the product or experience, and ultimately how successfully it delivers on an overarching business strategy.
Embrace your creative, play to your strong suit.
There you have it. Regardless of what you’re actually wearing, or your role, chances are you’re wearing a t-shirt and a suit simultaneously. In some capacity.
So next time you’re working on a project and you make a minor choice that someone may never explicitly notice, stop.
Take a second to reflect on why you made that specific choice, recognise your contribution to the success of a much larger business strategy, and give yourself a celebratory suit-spruce. You’ve earned it.