The Creativity Conductor

Creativity takes on greater importance in today's saturated media world. Claire Beale talks to John Kao, who has turned studying creativity into an art form. Advertising is one of the few businesses that has traditionally anointed some people with the freedom to be creative and, by implication, stripped others of the requirement to flex (or even find) their creative muscles.

But creativity has escaped from the creative departments of ad agencies and has become the right - the requisite, even - of every company in the marketing mix. No longer is it a precious commodity, the preserve of an elite few with a certificate from Watford or St Martin's; media agencies have creative directors, research companies have heads of innovation, marketing consultancies have directors of difference.

But it's a challenge, no doubt about it. The demands of the creative bandwagon have not necessarily been reflected in the make-up of the people required to climb on board. Clients are asking for greater artistic flair and innovation in everything from the construction of a media buying schedule to the conducting of a focus group but at rock bottom there's a shortage of good people capable of wedding technical skills with a keenly, creatively innovative approach. And despite ubiquitous, fashionable claims to the contrary, creativity and innovation are often counter-cultural.

At the same time, some agencies struggle to encourage their clients really to understand the creative process, feel confident about taking creative risks and reward creative excellence.

John Kao reckons that he has some answers to the issues. He believes that creativity and innovation can be taught, cultured and institutionalised (in a positive, creative way, of course) and he spends rather a lot of his time helping people and companies get there. His credentials? Of course, he's an author (of Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, among others), a conference-platform hogger, an executive educator (working with blue-chip companies to foster greater innovation and creativity) and a tutor. So far, so predictably divorced from the real world. But Kao walks the walk.

He was the first lecturer in creativity at Harvard Business School, launching a course on "Entrepreneurship, creativity and organisation" in the early 80s. He's got his own corporate consultancy, the Idea Factory (helping clients think in "a radically different way about innovation"), in San Francisco. An e-solutions consultancy in Europe, Escador. He's a part-owner of Ealing Studios. A founder of a biotech tissue-engineering company.

A film producer (Sex, Lies & Videotape; Mr Baseball).

And clients such as IBM, Nokia, Intel, Accenture, PricewaterhouseCoopers, The World Economic Forum and Columbia Pictures are listening to him. Read on.

John, how do you define creativity and innovation? Creativity to me is the ability to come up with an idea that is novel. But creativity has no value in itself, which is why people use the word innovation, meaning creativity that is applied with some purpose.

But both words have become platitudes. Innovation, I think, is really about having the capability to advance toward one's desired future state.

How can companies improve their corporate creativity? There's a short list of interventions that are pretty significant in terms of loosening innovation within a company. I'm not talking about changing the physical plan of an entire company, but it may well be that having a single well-designed creative space - an alternative to the conference room, a special space for projects - is a good idea, where projects could be worked on for days, weeks or years and where, as you get smarter about a project, the room gets smarter, the diagrams and words on the walls begin to tell a more rounded tale.

New ideas often arise in those places within an organisation where the traditional structures have dissolved a little bit, where it's kind of a little black hole, where people are talking to each other when it wasn't possible before.

So this idea of a brain space or a creative space, an innovation platform or an idea factory is very valuable, where you have a lot of tools and visual materials, where people can come in from a lot of different disciplines and immerse themselves in a project and it becomes like a gallery or museum of ideas.

So how crucial is innovation in the agency sector? It's absolutely vital.

When you're successful, it's tempting to keep doing what you've done over and over. And to do that, it's tempting to staff yourself with the sort of people who get the way you do things. And all of a sudden what happens is you become the successful incumbent with a very talented but homogenous team. Being an incumbent, by definition, is a vulnerable place, supplantable by an insurgent company that comes along and thinks about things in a very different kind of way and with a fresh perspective.

One of the truisms of managing an innovative organisation is to constantly have the ability to act at the edge. The edge means going outside that homogenous culture, finding people outside the organisation who are different from you. It's really hard to do because success would argue you should be doing more of the same and that's where efficiency and margins come from. Whereas going to the edge is an investment and it's inconvenient and it's talking to people whose opinions you may not totally buy into, but if you don't investigate all that you'll never know about it.

There are a lot of interesting mutant companies now that look a little bit like advertising agencies, a little bit like brand strategy companies and they look a little bit like design companies and maybe they do a little research thrown in. They are people who are rejigging the ingredients in a different kind of way.

But clients have become much more risk-averse, the procurement people are taking over, measurables are paramount. How can agencies break through this and encourage clients to value creativity higher? First, you have to be able to serve the today business very, very well, but if you're not keeping your client focused on tomorrow as well, then I think you're doing them a disservice, because you're just dealing with what they tell you that they need, rather than anticipating their future needs and so building a much more valuable relationship.

You need to encourage your client to participate in the culture of your creative enterprise. Having client rooms is a great idea, bespoke environments where not only is all the stuff that's relevant to that relationship displayed, but it becomes kind of like a safe place for the relationship to unfold in unpredictable ways. You can create that kind of club-house atmosphere when you and the client can meet whenever you feel the need.

What do you do to get your creative juices flowing? Well, what works for me may not work for someone else. But one thing I do is learn something new. I'll get interested in a subject and I'll read everything I can find on it for a week and then I'll stop. I pick things up, play with them, learn them. I try to find white space as much as possible and if I choose today, a day or a week when I don't talk to anybody, I can have that ... it's a great luxury. It looks self-indulgent and unproductive, but it's actually the reverse, I find.

But that's all so counter corporate culture. I don't think there's any company out there that can tolerate so much expeditionary stuff that they don't do their day-to-day work, so there has to be a balance. But I would extract the seeds of what I've just said and say, well, is there a way that people can talk to one another outside of the traditional disciplines? Is there a way that a chief executive or a creative director can maintain energy levels by rotating activities and injecting something unplanned and exciting? Is there a way that companies could invest in the learning of key people to keep them engaged and interested?

Is there a way a company should have white space, either in terms of a company retreat or a white-space room, and not expect people to punch in and punch out as if they were working in a widget factory?

You've spoken a lot about how consumers are taking charge of creative channels for their own commercial messages. We're now in an era where consumer technology means we can all make digital films, do animation, create visual slide shows and your clients are paying good money to think about these issues.

Advertising has traditionally been about smart advertising people generating great creative that is kind of inflicted on the customer, that goes to the customer and changes their behaviour. But we're now in the era where people are grabbing hold of the apparatus of sophisticated media.

One of the things I've been really fascinated by is what I call the phenomenon of bottom-up media. Check out moveon. org on the web. It's a political organisation in the US and one of the things it does is post commercials about our president that have been made by members of the public. Mountains of these little movies were submitted by citizens across the country and they wound up having an awards show, like the Oscars, to pick the best ones. So now this whole idea that people are going to tell stories about the experiences that are important to them and that someone will curate those and use them to influence change. It's very different from somebody at WPP or Saatchi & Saatchi or any one of the big advertising agencies sitting around and saying: "What's the big idea now?"

What should established communications companies do to prepare for this future? Advertising agencies are trying harder than ever to be relevant to their clients with their own kind of innovative challenges, which is very understandable because the strategy consultants who do innovation are higher up the value chain in terms of their billing rates and what they can charge.

But, to get there, agencies can't just hire somebody and call them their designated innovation expert. You've really got to build a culture that celebrates that diversity of perspective and is truly interdisciplinary and truly has the ability to integrate these different perspectives.

I've now developed six or seven really deep roots - from film, theatre, design, psychiatry, the academic stuff, new companies - and each one fertilises the other. So I'm always, in a sense, at somebody else's edge. If somebody can model that sort of diverse, stimulating cross-fertilisation in their corporate culture, and have it not just be a platitude or a marketing ploy, that's the model for the future.

The ad industry has had a relatively easy time in terms of not having to respond to pressures and innovate in the deep sense. But I think there are going to be waves of disruptive change that are going to be fuelled by demographic social change, change in the geopolitical sense, that will bring a rude awakening.