Jay Hunt, chief creative officer of Channel 4
Jay Hunt, chief creative officer of Channel 4
A view from Jay Hunt

'We've stolen from the best' - Channel 4's Jay Hunt on creativity

Jay Hunt, chief creative officer of Channel Four, is Marketing's Craft curator for November. Here, Hunt outlines why she believes controlled chaos is the most effective route to genuine creative depth.

Thursdays are mayhem for me at Channel 4. It’s the day I catch up with all of my teams. From practically dawn (OK, 9.30am), it’s a steady stream of people pitching what they hope is ‘The Next Big Thing’. Depending on who is in the room, it can lurch from a heated debate on the plight of the polar bear to an insane idea for live sky-diving. Last week we started with the future of the NHS and ended with Gaza the Musical. Don’t even ask.

We’ve stolen from the best - creativity is baked in to everything, from the design of its building to the way meetings are run

When you run channels that champion risk you have to celebrate that eclecticism. It’s the very madness of different ideas colliding that leads to hits. Some of our most successful shows came from unexpected quarters. Our science and history team developed the must-watch entertainment hit, Gogglebox. The comedy team commissioned dystopian drama Black Mirror, and our factual team backed the danger-fest reality show The Jump.

It sounds like chaos, but the latest insights around creativity suggest controlled chaos might be just what we need. For years we’ve all subscribed to the idea of light-bulb moments. But it’s tricky building a business on random moments of genius. Companies such as Pixar have championed new ways of working to maximise those creative highs. Pixar president Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc is a masterclass in how management practices can help to avoid hindering the best ideas.

Nurturing ideas

Pixar is a business built on unforgiving peer review and constantly seeking different perspectives. It has got under the skin of what it feels like to fail, dust yourself off and try again. Instead of paying lip service to the value of getting it wrong, it knows getting it wrong, in small ways, guarantees it will not fail on a much bigger stage. The consequence? Creativity is baked in to everything, from the design of its building to the way meetings are run. 

We’ve stolen from the best, and now work that way at Channel 4. Simply put, that means no one gets to hide their homework. Our big plays are reviewed not just by the teams who really get them, but also by the teams who don’t. Shows such as The Island were teased and tested by everyone from drama experts to current-affairs gurus. And I watched like a proud parent as, in front of my eyes, a good idea became a great idea, became a hit show. 

The artist-in-the-garret mythology will always entrance some - but the best brains in this space know that can be romantic twaddle

This isn’t easy stuff. There are still the refuseniks who think structure is anathema to real creativity. Of course, the artist-in-the-garret mythology will always entrance some. But the best brains in this space know that can be romantic twaddle. 

Thinking differently

Dr Mark Batey teaches creativity at Manchester Business School. He has a useful phrase: different people help each other to think differently. We’ve worked with him to understand how to encourage that collision of worlds. Now, commissioners with very different skills meet informally each week just to discuss ideas. So the script executive on Hollyoaks sits with the Grand Designs commissioner to talk about a comedy script.

They don’t presume to know better than the experts, but they have become our secret weapon; our own market-testing, if you like. Groups of savvy, engaged people mired in our brand values. Moreover, it works. I am convinced we wouldn’t have been named Channel of the Year at the Edinburgh TV Awards without it.

Creativity is an art, but it can also be a science. We can all sit around waiting for the flash of brilliance in the bath. But I suspect the great brands of the future will be those smart enough to understand how to mine the real creative depth in their own teams.

See also

Jay Hunt, chief creative officer of Channel 4, curates the 12 stand out examples of the most creative marketing from the past month