The censorious trend is a threat to creativity
A view from Rory Sutherland

The censorious trend is a threat to creativity

Creative people share a mischievous disdain for the party line on just about anything. In many ways that's their job, writes Rory Sutherland.

I don’t know the first thing about Kevin Roberts. I have only met him once and have no idea whether he is the model of a modern, liberal-minded metropolitan man or whether he prowled the corridors of Saatchi & Saatchi like a Lancastrian Leslie Phillips.

But I do know Nicholas Christakis. Before he co-wrote Connected: the Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives and became a professor at Yale, Nick had spent several years working as a doctor among the destitute and the dying in the South Side of Chicago.

If there were a world championship for the world’s most urbane and generous man, he would easily make it to the semi-finals. None of this prevented him from becoming the victim of a witch-hunt. Nick’s crime was to support an email his wife had sent questioning whether students at Yale should look to the university to lay down a policy on acceptable Halloween costumes.

As an expert on childhood development, Erika Christakis had long opposed the coddling of the young and their demands of university authorities that they be insulated from anything remotely discomforting. (Those of you following the debate will be familiar with phrases such as "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings".)

This view, and the couple’s defence of campus free speech, saw them forced to step down – essentially for disputing a view held by no more than a small minority of vocal people. You don’t need to be an expert on network effects to realise there is something creepy and Stalinist about this.

The couple’s defence of campus free speech, saw them forced to step down – essentially for disputing a view held by no more than a small minority of vocal people. 

For one thing, in this new moral order, what you say seems more important than what you do. If I’d taken a year’s sabbatical to fight for Ratko Mladic, it wouldn’t have affected my career at all. Yet every time I speak, I am just one inappropriate knock-knock joke away from a lifetime spent writing tent cards.

However well-intentioned, this censorious trend bothers me. One quality marketing agencies and universities share is that they become worthless if people cannot speak freely and experimentally – and, indeed, outrageously.

Having spent my life around creative people, I’ve noticed one common quality is a mischievous disdain for the party line on just about anything; in many ways, that’s their job. (When the neuroscience is finally settled, it would not surprise me to find out that creativity is a form of Tourette’s.)

This whole demographic debate will be wasted if we simply tick every etho-demographic box while only hiring people who share the same "safe" world view.

Ethnic equality and gender equality are best pursued obliquely – they should emerge as a byproduct of how you hire and promote, not as the main goal. This was precisely Ogilvy & Mather’s aim in creating ogilvypipe.co.uk. Always remember Goodhart’s law: "Any metric which becomes a target loses its value as a metric."

Rory Sutherland is the vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group UK.