Scott Belsky, chief product officer at Adobe, says that creative workers are a bigger part of the economy than ever, thanks to new technologies, more gig work, and shifting norms following the pandemic. He recommends that leaders at all companies — not just those in traditionally creative fields — understand this key component of value creation today. He explains how companies can make themselves more competitive by making themselves more attractive to the likes of designers, writers, and artists.
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
The creative economy may be having a bit of a moment. I’m saying this partly from feeling, but look at job postings or TV ads, or just listen to CEOs talk nowadays. And you get the sense that more and more companies realize that creative workers are key to value creation. Now, content has always been king, right? But there have been some significant developments lately. New technologies, the explosion of the gig economy, digitization plus social pressures to give more credit to people behind the products. To say nothing of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exerting new forces on workers and employers.
Our guest today believes that companies will fall behind unless they make themselves more attractive and rewarding for writers, designers, artists, producers, or just anybody who values creativity in the workplace.
And he’s here to explain some of the latest development in this macro trend. Scott Belsky is the chief product officer at Adobe. He joined the company in 2012 when he sold his startup Behance to the firm. Scott, thanks for coming on the show.
CURT NICKISCH: 10 years ago, back around when you sold your company, the creative economy, creative class, that was a popular concept. What has been happening since then to take this kind of from buzzword status to a real material trend?
SCOTT BELSKY: Well, I think the most significant work changes that have benefited the creative worker, some of them are trends in terms of technology and media in general. And certainly some of them relate to the tools that creatives use themselves. So let’s just talk quickly about both.
On the media distribution side, first of all, you have the rise of all of these new streaming services. You have this need for every small business, medium sized business and large business to constantly create content in real time, as opposed to the traditional let’s do one or two campaigns a year and let’s have a big agency do it for us. Now across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, I mean, you have to be creating a high velocity of original content on a daily basis to engage with your community of customers.
And so with that is the need for 10X more creative content, right? That is developed in real time, that is optimized real time. And so that translates to a ton of opportunity for creatives. Of course, when Netflix is competing with Amazon and Apple and all the traditional movie studios to get original content that also benefits at the end of the day creators.
And the rise of platforms like Patreon and many others that allow creatives to get paid directly to create work. And then most recently the rise of CryptoArt and NFTs and the ability for digital artists to mint limited edition versions of their creations on the blockchain and sell them and monetize their talent. I mean, these are massive opportunities and seismic shifts in the space.
And then on the tool side, the tools are becoming more accessible. They’re becoming cheaper. And hen also the tools themselves are collaborative. So instead of working isolated on an island, you can jump into a link and start to work with somebody else. You can have a collaborative experience. So both on the distribution as well as the creation side, this is an entirely different world for the creator.
CURT NICKISCH: And what about on the organizational level? We mentioned the buzzword of creative class and the creative economy. That does reflect of just a growing understanding and a growing awareness among organizations that part of what their job is and part of what the job of a manager is, is to unleash the potential that creative people have. And that’s one reason we’ve seen a lot of companies move into places like San Francisco and London, because they want to be around where creative workers are. What have you seen on kind of the organizational management level?
SCOTT BELSKY: Well, it’s a great question because I think every company knows that design is now a competitive advantage. That you can actually compensate for higher prices that you’re charging your customer. You can compensate for worse off technology frankly. And you can stay more competitive in the market by having a superior experience that you’re delivering.
And a lot of enterprise products are competing based on design and interface and better experience and a lot of consumer products. And so with that realization, every manager is properly thinking, well, how do I make that we’re best in class on design? How do I make sure that we are creatively competitive? Part of that is how do you expose your employees to culture? How do you aggregate great talent, of course. But more importantly, internally, how do you set up those folks to have influence and to really change the company.
And that’s where it gets hard, right? Because traditionally design is either outsourced or it’s a small organization within the company that reports up to many people who report up to many people. How do you give designers this elusive seat at the table. And that I think is one thing that some companies figure out and many companies don’t.
And then I also think on a more execution level, how do you change the way a company markets and creates content? I love this a few years ago, the Super Bowl. The lights went out in the middle of the Super Bowl. And then within 30 seconds, the social media accounts for Oreo, the brand Oreo, came out with a little campaign called, you can still dunk in the dark. And that got shared widely, right?
And it was so clever. And it was such a representative moment for me of the future of creativity in brands and business, because some individual was empowered to think and act in real time on behalf of the brand creatively.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What other examples of companies or strategies have you seen where the creators are getting a seat at the table and are being heard, rewarded, et cetera?
SCOTT BELSKY: Well, I think there’s many different models for this. And so there’s no one right answer. And there are many different companies that do this. I mean, obviously Apple is one of the very best examples of a company where design is at a different level of the power stack in the company. They really have a lot of veto power, designers are deeply respected, coveted, protected. And then you have other companies where the product leaders are designers. You have other companies where the designer is represented at the executive level of the company and can really go through and make sure that what’s being shipped is what was intended from an experience perspective. That is an organizational change endeavor for most companies.
CURT NICKISCH: So amid these changes we now have the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed how creative people work, how everyone works, how everyone works together. What are the biggest developments from the past year that you’ve been watching?
SCOTT BELSKY: On the creative side of things and also the digital transformation of every type of business, which a lot of people talk about, but like why, right? Why did this suddenly transform us? And I really go back to this idea that all these technologies we’re using today en mass have been around for years, right? Zoom has been around. Slack has been around. A lot of these tools have been around, but in every team there were the holdouts. There were always the people who still sent emails. There always the people who said, no. We still have to meet in person on this one. We still have to meet in person on that one.
And as a result, all of us were kind of brought down to the lowest common denominator of the weakest link of the team as it relates to digital transformation. And so in some weird way, we had never fully realized the gains from technology in our teams until the pandemic hit, when that suddenly forced all of us to make the leap including that last 10% of people who were the holdouts.
And in one fell swoop, within a matter of maybe weeks, we suddenly fully realized the gains from the productivity that we’ve actually been able to access over years. And that was really exciting to me because in some weird way, we’re all going to be off way more productive going forward because of that massive COVID forcing function.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Has the pandemic shifted the way creative workers work?
SCOTT BELSKY: Well, I think in some ways empowered them to work the way they’ve always wanted to work. A lot of creatives have been forced to come into the office for face time. They are kind of pulled away from an optimal situation where they can kind of work on their own terms to working on other people’s terms and-
CURT NICKISCH: And hours too probably, right?
SCOTT BELSKY: And hours as well. Absolutely. And now suddenly-
SCOTT BELSKY: The night owls are free. Exactly. You’re not confining to a workforce cadence that isn’t optimized for you anymore. Now that being said, there also are some real big detriments for creatives that I’ve spoken to. The primary one being the source of inspiration. How do creatives get ideas? I mean, I always like to call creativity the world’s greatest recycling program because it’s people going out in the world seeing things, mistakes of the eye, other people’s creative work, traveling, culture, clashes of culture, subculture, all of this type of stuff. These are the inputs that then express themselves in the outputs, meaning the work.
And so a lot of us have been deprived from those inputs, right? We’ve been confined to our four walls and what we see on a screen. Hopefully again, we rise out of this from the best of both worlds and embrace of the inputs once again and the rediscovered autonomy and optimal working conditions for better output.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. I also want to ask about geography here because a lot of companies have moved into cities and revitalize them, right? Because they want to be around this creative class of workers and also have people working together so that you have that collision of ideas and innovations coming out of that interaction from people from different disciplines and different backgrounds and different areas of expertise. And so I just wonder now that everybody can kind of work the way that they want to. Is that going to disrupt some of this positive congregation that was happening?
SCOTT BELSKY: My macro thesis here is that we are going to want to work together again. We’re going to want to have physical experiences. However, as opposed to them being forced on us or circumstantial, they’re going to become more intentional. And so if a creative team gets together, it’s because they want to have an offsite and they want to have a deeper conversation and dialogue or debate over something, as opposed to Monday morning.
CURT NICKISCH: Got it and they’ve cleared their meetings.
CURT NICKISCH: And they don’t have deliverables due that day. And their minds are really free for that.
SCOTT BELSKY: Right. It’s like really jointly intentional and purposeful time. And I think that the outcome of those aggregations are going to be fantastic. I also think that the idea of cities or living geographically bound to an office or a job, is the question of was that because was it a power center or creative center.
Power centers are where we’re in a city, because it’s the city to be in when you’re in that industry. And if you need to be known, if you need to be taken seriously, you have to be in that city. So, the power center era told us that San Francisco is where you’re serious about tech. I remember many VC firms would say, we only invest in companies in San Francisco. Which now it sounds insane. But that was only a few years ago. If you want to be in real estate and finance, you got to be in New York.
If you want to be in Madison Avenue marketing, you got to be in New York. If you want to be in Hollywood, you got to be in LA. That’s the power center era. And that’s over.
But now there’s a question of creative centers. Like where do you want to be for your inputs, your stimulation, the people you want to collaborate with? In some ways, I think that creative centers, by the way, can be much smaller and more dispersed. So, I know a group of people that are aggregating like-minded talent in Omaha, Nebraska. I know groups of people that are moving to places in Utah and Montana, where they’re going with a handful of other creatives from different disciplines. And they’re saying, Hey, wait a second. We can own land. We can have the ultimate office space. We can have some great cross-pollination with people we respect.
SCOTT BELSKY: Yeah, exactly. And we can still do our best work.
CURT NICKISCH: It’s interesting because we’ve done interviews on this show about how companies can access talent clusters. But it raises the question, if creative workers can disperse and congregate in more places, like what do companies need to do now?
SCOTT BELSKY: Companies need to evolve in embracing talent on their own terms. And that includes where they live, how they work, what tools they use, et cetera. I mean, to me, the best companies over the years have kind of figured this out, but it’s more so true than ever before now, because the best talent knows that they don’t have to conform anymore. They don’t have to compromise and they can in fact, work on their own terms.
Think about it this way. Just a few years ago, if you were one of the best animators in the world, one of the best motion graphics artists, one of the best videographers, you would look for a stable career working for an agency or production company or whatever. Now you’re realizing, well, I can actually work for anyone and everyone. I can command top dollar. I can have autonomy over my work.
I can pick my clients. Why would I ever have a career in one company? And I think you could argue the same thing has happened in the publishing world to some extent and where instead of working for penguin, you’re independent and you’re working with authors directly and you’re creating content and you have people paying you. And you’re making a great fee on a monthly basis from a large group of people that love your work. I mean, there’s a lot of analogies here for what’s happening across different creative spaces.
But what companies need to do is evolve their policies to be able to embrace these folks. So if you don’t allow a remote working policy in your company, then you are not able to attract and retain the best creative talent that you need in order to stand out in your space. And so you have to rethink that.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, it sounds like the growth of the gig economy and the creative economy are kind of at interplay here.
SCOTT BELSKY: That’s true. And by the way, there’s also an economic side to this. Not only can you attract better talent by enabling them to work on their own terms and having a flexible workforce. It’s also economically easier to hire some of this talent outside the city centers, where a lot of these companies are located. So there’s a talent arbitrage situation to some degree here. You could maybe get better talent for specific functions for less by thinking more expansively about where you can hire people.
CURT NICKISCH: I want to talk a little bit about how the pandemic has affected creativity and productivity, right? We’ve all experienced this. It seems like even if you’re a creative worker, there was a crisis mode there for a time. Difficult working conditions as well for many people. And so sometimes it feels like it’s just hard to be creative at a time when things feel so serious. How we value creativity during the pandemic changed?
SCOTT BELSKY: In this regard, I actually think there was a more macro trend underway that maybe the pandemic just accelerated. Humans for decades have succeeded in the workplace based on their productivity. And so the deployment of tools like Excel and Word and all the other tools we use in the enterprise and the modern technology stack for companies was all designed to help people be more productive, so they could be successful in their jobs.
But now we’re entering an age where artificial intelligence and outsourcing tools and better project management tools, et cetera, have in some ways replaced a lot of the human sources of productivity. The machines are making us more productive now more than people making us more productive as companies.
And therefore, if you fast forward this, what is the role of the human in the enterprise? What is the role of the human in any business or organization? To me, it’s clearly to do the things that only humans can do, which is to be creative, to visualize data, as opposed to just presenting it, to tell a story, as opposed to just reporting an outcome. To compel people, to take action on things, to better merchandise publicly, to innovate and brainstorm and think about contrarian views, et cetera.
And so if that’s what humans are going to be looked to in the future, if that’s what’s going to make human stand out in the future and be successful in their jobs, well, then we have a problem. We have to outfit these people to be creative. We have to either teach them how to use the current creative tools of the day or we have to build new tools that are more accessible to more people.
CURT NICKISCH: It sounds like you were saying that there’s an argument here for a manager at a company that’s not sort of in a creative industry, like film or art or multimedia. That that manager really needs to be caring about these things as well?
SCOTT BELSKY: Yeah. It’s hard for me to think of an industry where this doesn’t apply. The number one reason I would give is that at the end of the day, we are all individual human consumers, right? We have phones with a certain level of intuitive architecture of how we get things done in our personal lives. And we all have the expectation to be as efficient and have the delightful user experience in our professional lives. And that means that whether you are an auto repair shop, whether you are a company that builds some big enterprise-yy tool, whatever you are in, whatever your business is, your employees are going to want to have a better designed experience.
And when they get one, they’re going to better retain and they’re going to better perform, and your customers are also going to want to have a similar quality experience. And they’re going to be more loyal when they have a frictionless interaction with your brand.
CURT NICKISCH: I wonder what you would recommend to somebody who’s a creative worker in an organization who feels like they’re not doing enough for that person. The future is accelerating as you’ve explained. It’s not equally distributed in the sense that some companies are further along on this learning curve than others. If you’re a creative worker in an organization and you feel like they’re just not doing enough for you or not really helping you unlock all the potential that you have. Like, what should you do?
SCOTT BELSKY: That’s a great question, because all too often, what an ambitious creative does in that situation is they leave.
CURT NICKISCH: Right. Which is an option.
SCOTT BELSKY: Which is an option. And so what can you do if you care about the company, you care about your customers, you feel passionate about the mission of the business, and you want to lead change. And perhaps you’re in the middle of the management stack, but you know in your core that this has to happen.And there’s two ideas there that I’ve seen work. One is to build a union, not like a union in the traditional term. But unionize the creative organization in the company with a senior sponsor, and then start to advocate for the role and the rights so to speak of the creative in every team. I think centralizing a creative or design organization, as opposed to having all these people scattered about under managers who don’t appreciate them or empower them is one way to make sure that creative has a seat at the table.
CURT NICKISCH: And of course the option to leave and go work for another company, which is always on the table, maybe is even more accessible now because so many places are hiring remotely or at least remote for now. I suppose you can use that recognition, right? That you are now more marketable because you can literally work for more companies without moving as a way to flex a little bit of that influence within your own company before you decide to leave.
SCOTT BELSKY: Yeah, it’s a market tendency, right? The more in demand great talent is the more selective there’ll be of the customers that they can work with or want to work with. And the more friendly the company has to be to its talent in order to keep them and hospitable of their ways of working. So there’s a bit of a market tendency going on there. And for some functions it’s really helpful to have a design 100% immersed and focused on your product and in other functions it’s actually helpful to have creatives who have exposure to many different brands and companies and products. Because then they’re actually better at their jobs than if they’re only working for you and your one brand. So it really depends. But I agree. The degree of hospitality a company and brand is to its talent these days especially is critical.
CURT NICKISCH: Scott, thanks so much for talking about where creative workers and the… Ah sorry. Let me just sum this up in a more HBRie way. Scott, thanks so much for talking about the landscape of creative workers and how it’s changing.
SCOTT BELSKY: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Scott Belsky. He’s the chief product officer at Adobe. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.