16.05.2017

Redefining Creativity

Let’s breathe life back into creativity by making it less of a “thing,” and more of the atmosphere we breathe.

Creativity is a term that is much bandied about. We listen to TED Talks about it. We attend conferences and symposiums on it. Companies hire “creativity consultants.” Advertising as an industry promises creativity applied to business challenges, and that’s ostensibly why clients hire us. Which is kind of a weird way to make a living when you think about it.

But it’s time we gave some deeper thought to what creativity is and is not, and appreciate some of the nuance behind the process that we call creative thinking.

We tend to assume either end of a spectrum when it comes to conventional thinking about creativity (and yes, that sounds like an oxymoron). On one end, populated by well-trained responsible marketers, creativity is a step in the strategic process once we have done our market research, chosen a good advertising agency, defined the most fruitful territory for our business and then briefed a creative team to solve the problem in a clever way. To me, as understandable as this approach is when a lot of money is riding on the tires, this is not a definition of creativity so much as a location. And a far too limited location at that.

On the other end of the continuum, creativity, especially in the hands of those we anoint as “artists,” is about creating something entirely original, something the world has never seen or even dreamed of. It is the mystical act of creation, something wholly new conjured by a magician out of the void.

I don’t think either of these definitions is helpful. So let’s start again.

“Creativity is about unusual combinations of existing things, not creating something entirely new. And sometimes that new combination just works.”

A few years ago, a good friend of mine named Brett Channer, who was then creative director at Saatchi, said to me after a meeting, “Creativity is about unusual combinations of existing things, not creating something entirely new. And sometimes that new combination just works.”

This of course got me thinking. I’m an amateur foodie, and the glaringly obvious thought occurred to me: great chefs, who are often among the most relentlessly “creative” people on the planet, are constantly combining existing ingredients in fresh ways.

My thoughts then turned to Nature, the most prodigiously creative force we could ever encounter, and how we now know that new species and new features within current species are the result of slight sequence variances in strands of DNA. A few little shifts in sequence and you get a very different result. Such as eyes that can see higher frequencies, or an opposable thumb instead of the usual finger.

Bringing it back to advertising, I would urge every member of a client and agency team to consider the ways in which they can contribute to creativity. Are there examples emerging in the world, even in distant quarters, where someone is combining things in ways that are unheard of? Is there a slightly different sequence or process for how we’re coming up with ideas that will result in more breakthroughs? Are there assumptions we’re holding sacred that need to be questioned, or just plain thrown out?

Let’s breathe life back into creativity by making it less of a “thing,” and more of the atmosphere we breathe.

New combinations only result from risk-taking, asymmetry, multiple influences and a great capacity for nuance. Forcing creativity into a prescribed two-week period—or thinking of it as an algorithm, or even putting it on the pedestal of Total Originality—is the kiss of death. Let’s breathe life back into creativity by making it less of a “thing,” and more of the atmosphere we breathe.

-W.