Loosen Up

Regular readers (how are you both getting on?) will know about my interest in creativity. Like a lot of people I think I’ve always loved ideas – having them and hearing about them – but I can remember when I first started to take an interest in understanding creativity. I was lucky enough to be in a small group of people working on an innovation team at Unilever. JWT heard about this and offered to have Jeremy Bullmore, their Chairman, come along to talk to us about creativity. He told us the story behind the Eureka moment, he talked about creativity in scientific exploration and he explained the philosophy of creativity of JWT’s Creative VP in the 1920’s, James Webb Young (I still have his book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ that Jeremy gave us).

This started a journey for me, one with no final destination I suspect, to understand creativity in all its aspects, but most especially in business. The difference between art and business is that in the latter creativity is applied, it has a commercial purpose. Or perhaps more accurately it has a commercial context so it is forced to have a commercial purpose. Artists create for the sake of creation irrespective of whether it has commercial value. They seek to evoke an enduring emotional response. In business we seek to want to get a commercial response.

There are commonalities. Creativity in ones’ endeavours is a disposition – it is not something that can be switched on and off or compartmentalized. You are creative because you think creatively and because you get excited by ideas.

“The difference between that which is constructed and that which is created is that the former is loved only after it is constructed, whereas the latter is loved before it ever exists” Chesterton

At the risk of compartmentalizing I see 3 kinds of creativity, whether in art or business:-

New connections – where different elements are brought together in fresh and original combinations to create a new idea.

Distillation – where the creativity takes us to the heart or essence of something, to some pure idea (like chipping away at a block of stone, removing all the unnecessary bits, to find the sculpture)

Inspirational – the idea just comes whether from divine intervention (unlikely) or some unconscious version of connectivity and distillation (more likely). The idea just comes like an epiphany. Another variation of this is spotting the idea – looking at what everyone looks at but seeing what they do not see – a penetrating and discerning insight.

I’ve always felt the first two can be facilitated. James Webb Young’s book talks of how he always kept notes of random thoughts and then used them like a roller deck when he tried to solve a creative advertising problem. He very deliberately collected eclectic stimulus to enable him to make fresh connections. Ideation workshop techniques make a lot of use of this – they force participants to free up their thinking and introduce lots of ways to reframe the problem and apply new stimulus to allow new ideas to be formed. We can use a variety of techniques to increase the chance of seeing the essence of an idea – we can immerse ourselves, we can experience and we can stand back and look from fresh angles.

But inspiration and the ability to spot and develop an idea seems to me to be an innate talent. However, you still need to give people the incentive and/or the permission to be inspired.

Perhaps the central point is that we can improve the environment for creativity. I enjoyed this blog from Neil Perkin. It talks about the need in business to create some space – some air is how I have also heard it described by my much missed friend Robyn Putter – for ideas to come. We have to loosen up and this can be a challenge in business. There is a tension – but is it a creative tension? – between managing the business efficiently, clear targets, clear roles and responsibilities, and yet being loose enough to allow ideas to surface. We need to organize everyone but, as Neil points out, we need to let diverse groups swarm on problems, to create fresh solutions.

Jeremy Bullmore has always identified the power of a tight brief to unlock creativity. We need to be clear about what problem we are solving and, importantly, by when, but loose about how we solve it. Maybe that is how we resolve the tension – we need to be serious about what we are trying to achieve but passionate about the creativity needed to achieve it.

But we cannot, must not, try to limit creative thinking to just product innovation, marketing, the ideation room, the 20% of your time you are allowed to work on ‘new projects’ or whatever. Creative thinking approaches everything creatively, all the time.

We have been talking a lot about this at Quirk recently and we have concluded that creativity in digital applies to everything:-

•    The strategy
•    The ideas
•    The creative use of technology
•    The creative application of all the tactics at our disposal
•    The aesthetics (because aesthetics or ‘eye-candy’ have a purpose – they demonstrate values, they engage and they are viral)

We have defined good creative – great creative – as being:-
•    Strategically relevant
•    Measurable (or else we don’t learn and if we don’t learn we don’t improve)
•    Able to generate response/action that far outweighs the cost – ROI

We recognize that this poses tough choices in terms of tight/loose management style but trust that a love of creativity balanced with a need for commercial growth will guide the choices.

I applaud and commend Quirk’s approach to being the best creative agency in their field. They have applied themselves to what this actually means and what it requires in terms of culture. Most agencies or businesses do not – they just pay it lip service or rely on inspiration.

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