The philosopher Robert Rowland Smith has a fascinating theory about creativity. He suggests that true brilliance come not from brainstorms or briefs, but from a place deep inside us which he calls the "Solus".
Artists, he says, are often struggling to deal with an unresolved tension – a childhood trauma, a lost lover, a troubling memory. Our efforts to recreate this image and grasp its meaning are the source of our greatest artistic potential.
We are all fixated by subconscious ghosts, but only a few have the courage to confront them.
This might explain why so many of us have our most profound insights in the shower, on windswept hillsides or when we’re half asleep. Our subconscious is whirring away, playing mental Sudoku on a problem we’re only half aware of.
But this theory is challenging when applied to commercial creativity.
I’m guessing that few of us have a primal obsession with new products or services, unless we grew up in a chocolate factory. And so professional creatives are essentially applying their subconscious to something they don’t actually care about very much.
And by doing so, they’re diluting the powerful fertility of the Solus. Of course advertising isn’t the same as art, but surely the most era-defining work comes from somewhere deeper than a typical client brief.
Sometimes these more intimate ideas just break through. They burst into our heads unbidden and insistent, like orphans without a home.
Take the example of "Climate name change", an award-winning campaign which sought to replace the names of hurricanes with politicians who denied the science of climate change (Hurricane Marco Rubio, and so on).
This idea emerged not from a creative brief but from the personal obsession of two creatives: Dave Canning and Dan Treichal, working at Barton F. Graf at the time. Both were deeply troubled by climate change and frustrated about the deniers. So they mulled it over, slept on it and dreamt it.
Only after the idea had fully emerged did they seek a charity partner – 350 Action – which was smart enough to keep the idea as close to its original vision as possible.
The campaign generated over 100,000 signatures in a matter of days and caused real embarrassment for the politicians involved.
Closer to home saw the launch of "Pigeon air patrol", from DigitasLBi in London. Air pollution is a silent killer in this city, so creative director Pierre Duquesnoy brilliantly imagined a world where pigeons helped us control the threat by carrying tiny backpacks with monitors nestled inside.
The technology was provided by Plume Labs, but the idea came from Duquesnoy alone. The resulting data was tweeted in real time and the story reached millions around the world.
These campaigns are all the more impressive because they had no reason to exist.
No-one had asked Duquesnoy to work on air pollution, yet he gathered enough resources and momentum to make his idea happen (it probably helped that he’s the creative director and not a junior recruit).
Both of these examples required tenacity and courage, not just from the creatives themselves but from the agency higher-ups. But I worry this is the exception, not the rule.
How many brilliant ideas have been rejected by harried executives who don’t have the time for anything but the core business?
We need to change this. My organisation, Glimpse, intends to help provide a home for these orphan ideas and help them reach their full potential.
Our first campaign was the Citizens Advertising Takeover Service, a crowdfunded initiative which replaced 68 Tube ads in Clapham Common station with cat posters.
It served zero commercial purpose whatsoever – it actually highlighted the saturation of product advertising in our lives. And yet crowdfunding gave the team the freedom to execute the idea as close to the original vision as possible.
Our only "clients" were the hundreds of people who donated to help us reach our goal, and they’re itching to help us with the next campaign. If you have a promising orphan with nowhere to go, we’d love to hear from you.
However you choose to get your ideas off the ground, try to keep some space for your own passions and beliefs.
I’ve never worked in the creative industry but I understand the influence it has on our culture, society and inner lives.
If you choose to use your talents only to sell more products, the world will be losing its best communicators to a dispiritingly narrow form of persuasion.
If you have an idea that could do some good then cherish it, nurture it, and seek to bring it into the world unscathed.
Sometimes it might be adapted for a brand or charity partner, but sometimes it deserves to stand alone. If creativity is about courage, then sometimes we all should be bold enough to follow the Solus.
James Turner is the founder of Glimpse