A good friend who works for a tech giant rang me from the US West Coast, where he lives with his family. He, along with everyone else over there, has plans for a start-up and wants my help.
I offer it unconditionally, then tentatively enquire what the business will do in the brief period between start-up and multibillion-dollar acquisition.
Marketing automation, he replies. It’s what everyone is talking about over here at the moment.
I appear hesitant. He continues: it’s the process of automating your marketing department, and means that it just sort of runs itself.
I tried to get excited about it, I really did. It’s just that all the things I hold so dear about this job cannot possibly be automated. The chance corridor conversations, the exchange of ideas, the 50 minutes of barren, unrewarding brainstorming, followed by 10 minutes of pure creative gold that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
The fact that a standout creative idea I had over the weekend came while I sat and contemplated a very large Bloody Mary (Belvedere Unfiltered, of course) on Saturday night, as the children went to sleep. It solved a problem we have been nibbling at for a month, and came out of nowhere. It’s the antithesis of automated.
The less structured and regimented one’s life is, the better the creative output.
More than that, I have long held the view that the less structured and regimented one’s life is, the better the creative output. Put another way, the demands of management and the prerequisites for creative thinking tend to work in diametrically opposite directions.
Management is mostly about smoothing out the bumps, bringing people with you, and presenting a calm, albeit exciting, vision of the world, all underpinned by your ability to shape it.
It requires a grasp of detail, a clear view of the way ahead and a high degree of numeric literacy. Wild, unexpected flights of fancy are frowned upon; even breakthrough creative thoughts about how to run your business have to be rationalised and presented to a broader audience in a logical, elementary manner.
Creativity can come from anywhere, but rarely from the routine and greyness of the mundane. That searing flash across the brain that links two or more unconnected dots, and often seems so obvious in retrospect, is more likely to strike in an unstructured, freewheeling mind and lifestyle.
Creative thoughts rarely make sense in the strictest meaning of the word. You can’t rationalise your way to creative brilliance, and if your mind is running only on trammelled lines, it may well elude you.
You can’t rationalise your way to creative brilliance, and if your mind is running only on trammelled lines, it may well elude you.
As any account man knows, the best barometer to test someone’s creativity is to be found in the practice of business travel, and, more particularly, the transit process through an airport.
Off the wall
To indulge in hideous generalisations for a minute, creative people are a nightmare when it comes to this. Sending a creative team to a meeting in Paris can be a traumatic experience – tending, as they do, to leave a trail of missed connections, lost phones, lost passports and misplaced duty-free purchases along the way.
Larry Barker, one half of legendary creative duo Larry and Rooney, once quipped that he would start sending his junior teams off on trips with labels tied round their necks reading: "Please look after this junior creative team."
The older ones are better. Their ability to find distraction in anything and everything around them is tempered by the advancing years and close attentions of a really good and long-suffering PA.
All of this rolls up, of course, to business culture, and reaffirms the fact that any organisation that wants to put ideas and creativity at its heart needs to create a sympathetic environment.
It’s less about beanbags and jelly babies, although they do play a part. (That said, no amount of dress-down Fridays will turn a bunch of stiff-necked accountants into a creative hot shop.)
You need energy, spontaneity and a certain amount of organised chaos to get the best out of people, which is perhaps why the agency model will continue to exist, irrespective of the disruptive forces of the day.
As you cycle across Waterloo Bridge, some people see buses, people and taxis. Braver souls may see the mighty river beneath and wonder what lies within
The positive of this, of course, is that while culture is the necessary underpinning for creativity, it is also something largely in the control of the people who set it. If you’re working in a sterile environment, it’s often easier to look the zany one.
The creative type
How many times have we all been to a dreadful client HQ in a business park, and been introduced to the ‘off-the-wall’ creative type who stands out in that environment because he parts his hair on the other side and carries a courier bag rather than a briefcase?
I used to have a client who was the creative strategist for a well-known brand. This seemed to manifest itself largely in a pencil case that he used to produce at meetings, before rather laboriously pulling out a fountain pen to make notes in a hardbacked notebook. It didn’t seem to be reflected in the quality of his work, which was neither strategic nor creative; but at least he looked the part.
As you cycle across Waterloo Bridge, some people see buses, people and taxis. Braver souls may see the mighty river beneath and wonder what lies within.
Creative people, however, will see shapes reflected in the buildings, fragments of conversation, road signs slightly askew, ill-chosen outfits on the individuals hurrying by, and the poetry of shapes speeding past one another. They will see a million things that normal people will not, because their minds are open. Creativity is everywhere. You just have to look for it.