Adobe-full-color Adobe-white Adobe-black logo-white Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-down 2 arrow-right arrow-right 2 Line Created with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter

Big Ideas

Welcome to the Era of Creative Meritocracy

What if the most talented people had the best chance of succeeding? Scott Belsky on why merit-based opportunity is the future of the creative industries

Imagine a world where the best ideas have the best chance to succeed. No more favoritism that places the wrong people on creative projects. Cut out the middlemen that arbitrarily recommend cost-efficient talent over the most deserving talent. Forget the corporate nepotism that appoints leaders based on relationships over merit. Every individual, team, and industry would benefit from a world where the most talented people got the most opportunity.

I call this dream “creative meritocracy,” and I believe that advances in technology, online communities, and platforms that empower career independence will make this dream a reality in the near future.

Unfortunately, we’re up against centuries of entrenched practices unfriendly to merit-based opportunity. Most industries – and society as a whole – are plagued with inefficiencies, middlemen, and tainted systems for determining quality. It’s a sad truth: The quality of your ideas and talent is less important than who you know, who represents you, and what your name is. Why? Because the “old school” systems around us make it so.

Without creative meritocracy, we suffer because our talent and hard work aren’t enough to land the job. Clients suffer because they receive inferior work. Moreover, our industries and society suffer from mediocrity.

Call it depressing or unfair, but don’t accept it. Creative meritocracy is within our reach. It is our job as creative minds and leaders to foster an era where capability is matched with opportunity.

Here are a few ways we can usher in the Era of Creative Meritocracy:

1. Proper Attribution

In the modern day of transparency and easy access to information, we should be wary of any efforts to isolate talent. Headhunters are known to find talent and then send around pieces of portfolios and resumes without any names attached. They purposely conceal the identity of talent and, as a result, are able to override meritocracy. Oftentimes, headhunters will use one person’s credentials as bait and then offer up less qualified talent that yields a higher profit margin.

Creative meritocracy relies on transparency and direct attribution. Appreciation for one’s ideas and creative work must be directly credited to the source. The accumulation of appreciation (or credit) is the currency that buys opportunity.

2. Leverage the Opinion of “Credible Mass,” Not Critical Mass

Community curation is probably the most valuable force of the Internet today. Amidst an endless flow of content from creatives with varying degrees of talent, the primary challenge becomes how to discern quality. Aided by tools like Digg and Facebook’s “Like” button, communities are starting to curate themselves. Anything from articles to pieces of art can now be sorted based on consensus.

Over time, community curation will gain more dimensions. For example, when evaluating the quality of a photograph, the opinions of 1,000 photographers may matter more than that of 1,000,000 random people. This is the difference between a critical mass and a credible mass.

Once professional communities develop algorithms for credible mass, creative meritocracy will shine in unexpected places.

3. No More Static Resumes and Stand-Alone Portfolio Sites

Great talent must be more efficiently (and honestly) displayed. The time has come for the classic Microsoft Word resumé to be replaced with something more interactive, credible, and connected. A resumé should have hyperlinks to show rather than tell, and be fact-checked by community scrutiny. The power of live testimonials connected to one’s resumé will become as important as interviews. LinkedIn has already provided a glimpse of what an interactive resumé would look like.

For the creative professional community, the situation is similar. We must transition from the stand-alone portfolio site to a more interactive approach to showcasing work. Personal portfolio sites are great for friends or existing clients, but it’s an uphill battle to get prospective clients and employers to visit your individual website. Your work is much more likely to be found if you showcase it where people are already looking.

Networks will empower talent to get opportunities from like-minded companies. They will not only foster more connections but better connections. Prospective clients and millions of bloggers, recruiters, and enthusiasts will benefit from having the ability to search and sort through a vast range of creative work all in one place.

As some of you may know, we are working hard to address this challenge with our own platform for creative professionals, The purpose of Behance Network’s recent integrations with LinkedIn, AIGA, MTV, and others is to help creative professionals efficiently display their portfolios across the web from one central hub.

Creative meritocracy will thrive with the adoption of platforms that organize talent – like LinkedIn and the Behance Network, among others.

4. Crowds Cannot Be Subjugated

Central platforms for talent will only thrive if we protect them from abuse. I have written before in BusinessWeek and elsewhere about the promises and perils of crowdsourcing. Online communities, especially when they are curated, offer an amazing opportunity to source talent. However, when technology is used to source vast amounts of talent without pay, the entire community suffers. I don’t call this crowdsourcing, I call it crowd-subjugation. The bottom line is that, unless talented people get paid for their time, output will suffer.

Crowd-subjugation works against creative meritocracy because only mediocre talent has the time and willingness to participate. Clients get sub-par output (and worse, they often don’t realize it). Participants quickly become disenchanted due to the low odds of actually getting paid. I liken it to discount sushi: You’re likely to try it once but regret it the next morning. Creative meritocracy is fueled by incentives that are optimized for top talent.

5. More Reason To Do What You Love

Under current conditions, you can still get away with making a lot of money doing something you don’t enjoy. Why? Because there isn’t enough focus on authentic drive. Bureaucratic hiring, review processes, and HR training programs fail to reward creative potential and punish those who pursue the status quo. But this would all change under the influence of creative meritocracy.

If the best talent were paired with the best opportunity, you wouldn’t succeed unless you loved what you did. After all, creativity and ideas are inherently the result of proactive thinking which is, in turn, the result of passion. When you do work that you love, creative meritocracy is the wind at your back. I could go on and on about how academic institutions and Fortune 500 companies could help foster creative meritocracy. Suffice to say, it starts with rethinking evaluation, reward systems, and operating principles.

6. The Resistant Must Innovate

Of course, creative meritocracy is not good for everyone. Those with mediocre talent will need to develop their skills; they won’t get lucky with undeserved opportunities. Entire industries that capitalize on our inability to source and measure talent would dissipate. Those that fear creative meritocracy should look beneath their resistance and, dare I say, innovate.

* * *

The best ideas will not see the light of day unless we let them. Our team at Behance is interested in the conditions (within a team, community, industry, or society) that support creative meritocracy. In our mission to empower creative professionals to make ideas happen, we know that creative meritocracy is an important part of the puzzle. In the spirit of creative meritocracy, I wanted to share this idea and see where it takes us!

What Do You Think?

What industry do you think would benefit most from creative meritocracy?
What other types of tools or techniques will foster creative meritocracy?
Where will we encounter the most resistance?

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (35)
  • Yael Miller

    I love that term, ‘creative meritocracy’! Brilliant.

    Thank you for a very informative and well-put article. It’s also amazing to see how far you’ve taken Behance since it started out – you’re not just another portfolio site but an entire ecosystem for creativity.

    You guys are amazing 🙂

  • Michele Simmons

    Love the piece…suspect it’s dream shared by many.
    In 5), sentence that begins “Bureaucratic hiring, review processes, and HR training…”, do you mean “…punish those who don’t pursue the status quo”?
    Thought it might have been missed in editing, so no need to post this comment — figured you might want to correct…
    Appreciate the insights you’re putting out there – thanks!

  • Paul Rankin

    I doubt anyone could say this better. Articles like this are why I visit the 99% everyday, and why Behance holds the same kind of brand value with me as Apple, Vimeo or the NY Times. Excellent work Scott.

  • Ben

    I agree in principle but to believe that the Internet can bring about this change is fallacy. Firstly why hasnâ??t it already happened? There is too much â??entrenchedâ??, as you mentioned, commerce online to make this happen (think about the NAPSTER court case), one sniff at anti-capitalist practice and the nearest multinational will start waving their lawyers.

    This aside, I feel the real reason that this is a pipe dream is that meritocracy canâ??t occur in a liberal-social society where everyone (in theory) has equal opportunity. What this would create a new elite or creative upper-class where their works have been accepted by (WHO?) another relative body that says that their good?! Who will but the stamp of Creative success on someone? The Masses? A single body? Both have issues of topological hierarchy where networks can be rigged (or not representative), and single bodies are prone to brides and nepotism.

    Well something to think about.

  • Joe McCarthy

    Interesting and provocative, with many enticing ideas. I’m all for creativity, meritocracy and doing what you love, and agree that the world would be a better place if these ideas were better supported by the systems within which we live and work.

    I do think, however, that the piece reflects the profession and professional bias of its author.

    Attribution and interactive portfolios are important and applicable to work in design and other professions where creative individuals and/or small teams produce noteworthy artifacts, but there are many professions where larger groups contribute to products or services in ways that are harder to differentiate, e.g., the people on manufacturing lines that actually produce what others have designed. I, for one, would not want to characterize such people (or their work (or their professions)) as mediocre,.

  • Ryan W. Kimball

    I wholeheartedly agree! Unfortunately it will likely be a long time before a model like this is accepted in the United States. Values such as these must be embraced from the roots up, from primary education, and currently we are forcing an outdated model that all but ignores creativity. We need to be encouraging and rewarding creative thinking and innovation in all areas, not just the arts.

    This Newsweek article sums this up nicely:

  • Tony Mosley

    I made the jump from employee to self-employed at the start of the recession, and can report that this is not exactly the case…

    Being a great designer and creative doesn’t automatically qualify you to be an equally brilliant book keeper or CRM type person, in fact if your spend all the time you require to really manage clients brilliantly you won’t have any time left to do the work you are supposedly winning new clients with.

    It’s true the internet has removed many of the walls from between the client and the designer etc, but embrace this at your peril if you are working within a company, make sure you maintain the client manager relationship or you will become the clients ‘bitch’, with suggested changes coming thick and fast the scope creep inevitable.

    the meritocracy is not a model built on the 24 hours we are forced to exist in.

  • Dan

    Noted this on Twitter (@Colortrails) but the fact is, even though these are very good ideas and it’s exciting to think about how business can become more fair and efficient with technology, the reality is technology does not prevent politics or buddy systems from playing a role. Human beings behave in the same way whether online or off.

    They seek out those familiar and friendly, and they seek to help those people without giving much thought to “who’s most qualified”. It’s not necessarily a bad trait (we all need friends and to help each other out), but the reality is everyone isn’t going to be great at their job. So by definition you’re going to find many cases and places where people only moderately talented compared to the stranger next door, still get the opportunity presented to them (via LinkedIn recommendation, Facebook or whatever) because of politics.

    Personally I don’t feel Facebook is well suited to business at all. It’s a fad and often used like a link-farm, wasting people’s valuable time. Facebook is in fact, a digital “middle man” all by itself. How many times have you seen businesses or individuals find or place substantive content online, and then from Twitter… link not directly to the content, but to a single line Facebook post, which THEN links out to the real content. That’s the opposite of efficiency. 😉

  • Scott Belsky

    @Ben – Yes, “creative meritocracy” is most certainly a dream (which is what I called it such in the intro). But we can still position ourselves to get closer and closer to it. There have been many audacious dreams over time that yielded concrete strides of progress.

    @Ryan – Thanks for that article…very interesting.

    @Joe – For sure, my professional bias is the creative industries given my role at Behance. I believe the forces that help power “creative meritocracy” are relevant for all teams and industries that value the power of ideas, but I am admittedly most focused on how they will impact the creative world.

  • person

    What a timely article! I recently pitched a project to my manager who in turn publicized it to the entire division under her name, with no reference to it being my proposal. In our team meeting this week, I will be bringing up the issue of proper attribution and how important it is to creative teams to always respect and attribute the creative ideas of members properly. Same manager rejected the “action method” way of doing things (why?I think because ideas are actually accounted for and tracked to owners with a time/date stamp). It just amounts to respect. Its disrespectful to not properly attribute work.

  • Chris Rogers

    I appreciate this concept and look forward to seeing it develop.

    The biggest challenge that this faces, aside from industry adoption and public awareness, is defining what constitutes high quality, great design, and true innovation? And who gets to define that?

    Too often, quality is determined by style, which is entirely subjective. Does it communicate? Does it work?
    Crowdsourcing is popular precisely b/c some people honestly don’t want the slick, high-end style that the design elite is selling. Sometimes the cliché works so well, it communicates so well, that it is the correct design solution, even though some may see it as mediocre or boring.

    And what is innovation? Just how many winning designs and hyped solutions are truly innovative. As László Moholy-Nagy warned…beware of novelty masquerading as innovation.

  • Alex Sacui

    This article is presented by a collective portfolio site. It is biased against individual portfolios because of its origin. Good work does get overlooked in the collective portfolio environment. Some inferior work gets more attention because of strong self-promotional effort.

  • mart

    I have just read this and the book ‘Making Ideas happen’ whilst trying to make multiple ‘ideas happen’.

    I have been trying to do so and get somewhere for 15 years and it don’t get any easier – I truly believe it is who you know and not what you know. This has somehow got to change! I have just come out of Uni at the age of 37 doing a product design degree after spending 15 years ad hoc designing and making stuff, mostly to no avail as you need the collaborative clout and huge slices of luck (driven by yourself) in order to succeed.

    In the UK if you don’t move to London and don’t know the right people you are basically stuffed IMO!

    Collaboratives and collectives need to become the norm and not people working in isolation. Just read anything about the struggle Nicola Tesla had in getting ideas to happen and he was a modern day genius see

    I need say no more….viva la revolutione

  • Piero

    In order to answer to your questions.
    WDYT: It’s what we need
    Rather than a specific industry, but all the so called developed economies like US and Europe should benefit of the creative meritocracy.
    A new kind of organization without “command and control” managers.
    Anywhere there are extrinsic systems of motivation based on the reward if you get the result, anyway you get it.

  • Scott Belsky

    @ Alex – I would argue that the skills for effective promotion are indicative of skills that are related to professionalism and strong communication skills. And, self-promotion of poor work does not necessarily get you more traction.

  • dori

    I did not study design and never had the money to for media industry but I know to invent and create compelling TV shows, game shows ,Realty and drama.
    I allow myself to dream for four years that someone would see in me what they saw in you and after I signed five contracts with production companies, I still hope Someone in this world will take what I create and do something with it. Sometimes I cry, sometimes my stomach hurts when I see someone else make it and I admit I’m jealous, how can you desire something so strong, invent, create, write and speak with so many people in the world on your desire to leave something to the world and still be with nothing. How the world can ignore somebody that really wants to give but has no money or connections with key people
    I learned that I still did not fail and my success is only delayed But for how long ?
    Five contracts say I’m in the right place so why no one gives me a chance

  • karl

    Nice read, but unfortunately, I feel that 99% of -ocracies rarely work as originally intended.

  • Carolyn King

    A truly admirable goal. Unfortunately it’s often he/she who shouts loudest who comes out on top. Businesses need to think differently about how they recruit and promote top creative people. In most companies, if you’re a creative person who wants to progress your career, you end up being promoted to management level. That means creative people often end up doing more admin and less creative work, so the meritocracy is working against you (and the company/clients).

    A far better approach is for companies to offer an alternative career path based on skills/mentoring. That way, top creative people can become mentors who are enjoying what they do, actively coaching others and promoting creativity within the organisation. Like you say, create the conditions and you’ll open up the possibility for it to happen.

  • Jeff Sevening

    This article and underlying principles are a long time coming.
    It is a very insight article and gets at the heart of the unmistakable
    truth. I feel that I am one who has been a victim of many of these
    circumstances. The overlooked are always passed by. We need
    to spread and get the word out to hiring people about a new
    approach in hiring creatives. It’s not about who they know and
    who they worked for, it’s about what they know and what they
    can do. When decision makers look at creative work, they
    shouldn’t react to how great it looks, but what is being said.
    Creative work is a form of communication. They need to
    understand what the message is, and that is what is
    supposed to be interesting. I want to Thank the author
    for bringing this to light.

  • Laurence Lord

    What Behance (and other similar organisations) are doing is innovative and it is wonderful to use the platforms they provided. They support individual merits and provide a good tool for checking out talented peoples talents 🙂

    @Ben Great point! …only so many people can get to the top. The image that opens this article makes that clear.

    My offering to the discussion is that there is more than one top that can be reached. The Who Gets Paid the Most climb isn’t the only mountain worth climbing. Currently I only have clients who don’t pay as much as massive companies might and I very rarely even meet any big spenders – but I can still climb to the top of where I’m at.

    Behance interest me because it has the potential to cross over from one game to another, allowing clients or talent hunters to pick up talent they wouldn’t have found any other way.

    As for getting to the top, if those clients want to invite a new individual to the top of their game then others who are there already up there will perhaps have to make room.

    So, are we seeing clients using, more freelance opportunities and more job-by-job contracting? Perhaps talented individuals will be more fluid, taking take it in turns being at the top as and when they’ve got the appropriate skills for the job.

  • Kgenextreme

    I cannot start to express how this article has settled my stomach about certain things. Constantly I’ve been working my ass off trying to constantly improve my portfolio to get into the right agency. But at each step it just feels that my talent isnt good enough. No matter what i did, just never did justice to the skill I believe i possess and the potential i have. Made me question that. This article rest assures me of the doubts in the system that i have been having since sometime

  • Thea

    There is just one counter argument I would make to your well-thought-out and elegant post, and that is that when it comes to a situation in which a team has to collaborate, sometimes the person with the best talent is not always the best choice. Highly creative people, and often those who are the most talented, tend to work very well on their own…but if they’re required to work together with someone else, that can be challenging unless they have the right attitude and social skills to get the job done. Those who do the hiring can sometimes benefit from knowing one candidate more personally over another, because they may have a better sense of how well that person will work with their other talent. I would rather work with a mediocre artist who can get the job done and not be a PITA than a very talented artist who can’t communicate, is horrible about deadlines, and/or can’t handle feedback.

    This feeds into business skills as well, really. Independent artists may be exceptional at their craft, but horrible at delivering what is asked…do you include business skills, or at least an ability to meet a deadline, in with the talent you describe?

    As Kurt Russell said in “Miracle” when he played Herb Brooks, the coach of the gold medal-winning hockey team: “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones.”

  • Christian K.

    I sincerely applaud your standpoint & initiative to change a flawed system. The immediate problem I get after first reading your article is your consistent use of ‘best’. ‘Best’ tends to be appropriate when you can be very quantitative & narrow. In many cases you cannot pre-determine ‘best’. Even after an attempt to do anything, you can almost always find ‘better’, but not necessarily ‘best’. ‘Best’ is an iterative process in most cases. As I’ve heard on the99percent before, you have to fail so many times in order to find out what works.

    My argument is not to discourage, but rather I think a re-phrasing of your points to be more accurate. I really enjoy most of the content here, and this is my first attempt to give back a little.

  • Scott Belsky

    Christian – points are well made. Thanks for the comment.

  • Scott Belsky

    Thea – I guess we need to define “talent” or “qualified” in a more holistic way. I agree that chemistry and interpersonal skills are often more important than raw skills. Our dream of “creative meritocracy” would need to account for this…

blog comments powered by Disqus

More articles on Big Ideas

John S. Couch
Painting Woman By Emily Eldridge
Figure inside a battery icon.