Michael Hart, The Union’s Creative Director, ponders our innate fear of innovation.
“Outwardly, we praise innovation. Inwardly, we harbour a visceral aversion to it.” – Matt Richtel, New York Times
Topic-wise, ‘creativity’ must be the most poisoned of chalices. So many great minds have covered this subject in infinite, erudite detail. I could save you all five minutes and just encourage you to watch the late, great Ken Hutchison’s TED Talk on creativity (what, you haven’t seen it?) or devour the works of Naomi Klein, Dave Trott, David Ogilvy et al. That would be my advice. But then again, you’ll soon forget what they say, because creativity’s first problem is our inability to remember its worth. Any nugget of wisdom gleaned from those giants will only reside temporarily in our craniums. We learn and forget, learn and forget. A cycle that continues in perpetuity because conformity, and as a consequence, mediocrity, is our default setting.
“Creativity causes uncertainty, which in turn causes insecurity. Most people want to avoid that. In fact, they tend to attack things that are new to them. That is why there is so much pressure to conform.” – Robert Evans Wilson
What is it we’re so afraid of? Well, for starters, creativity is an awkward, polarising word. It feels exclusive, nebulous, other. Immediately we’re drawn to one camp or its rival. Are you creative or not? And who’s your favourite player.
As long as we think of creativity as solely big-picture stuff, it will always feel aloof and inaccessible, when in reality it’s all around us and ever-present. Designing a reusable rocket for SpaceX is a creative solution to a problem, but so is positioning your knives blades down so you don’t stab yourself when emptying the dishwasher.
We were all creative as kids but by the time we reach adulthood only 50% of us think we still are. Where did our joy go? What happened along the way?
“The place where our first creative ideas go to die is the place that should be most open to them—school. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favouring their satisfier classmates who more readily follow directions and do what they’re told.” – Jessica Olien
Creativity is alien
It can be provocative, challenging, and uncomfortable. Rarely an easy buy, creativity represents a risk. And we’re not very good at that: being non-conformist, raising foreheads above parapets. History is littered with our shunning of the creative option. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, yet posters of kittens in brandy glasses were very popular to Athena shoppers in the 80s. But hey, we all love Van Gogh now, because to like him is to conform – yet few actually know what makes his work any good or why. Same with the Mona Lisa. Going to see it is what we all do, because, well, it’s what we’re meant to do. The Mona Lisa was a fairly insignificant painting until it was stolen in 1911, thus making it famous, and creating the tipping point that gave the vast majority permission to like it. I wrote a play about the Mona Lisa. Actually, it was about the paintings that once hung on either side of it in the Louvre – ‘Heroic Battle’ and ‘Rocky Landscape with a Huntsman and Warriors’. Both painted by Salvator Rosa and both forever obscured by the crowds ticking ‘enigmatic woman’ off bucket lists. Unfortunately for Sal, no matter how good his work might have been, no-one was ever interested in finding out.
The other thing about conformity is we’re more likely to succumb when in groups. Whenever decisions are being made by a collective it’s even more difficult to champion the outlier. Another reason why agencies are gripped with fear when tipping their ideas into the focus group cauldron or when feedback comes back prefaced with the dreaded ‘we shared it round the office and the consensus is….’ There’s a certain truth in the old chestnut that when you present three routes to a client, the worry is they will pick the weakest, safest option. Of course, it shouldn’t be in the mix in the first place but deep down we expect the client (not in every case) to settle for the comfort of the conventional.
Creativity – why even bother?
It takes more effort, more thought, more time. And it’s lonely. It’s so much easier to be mediocre. In fact, mediocrity doesn’t need to please anyone. We lap it up no matter what clothes it’s sheathed in. Which is creativity’s second problem. It needs to work like a Trojan (can I still say that?) to prove its worth. In marketing, there’s no hiding from the data. If your creative idea doesn’t shift the needle then you’re going to have a hard time arguing for creativity next time around. But creativity does the job, time and time again. Which we all keep forgetting.
“Research reveals a direct correlation between strong advertising creativity and business success, and that high levels of creativity make advertising campaigns some 12 times more efficient at increasing a brand’s market share.” – Thinkbox and the IPA
Despite all these challenges, we need to fight for creativity. Because when it’s missing or ignored, we suffer. Take volume housebuilders. Many of them design and build the same houses no matter where they are in the UK. Catalogue stuff, straight off the shelf, blind to any prevailing style or context. Villages like Elie in Fife or Bicester in Oxfordshire are being slowly engulfed by thick blankets of bland boxes that have very little to do with Elie or Bicester, or creativity or aesthetics. The architectural equivalent of a kitten in a brandy glass. “But that’s what people want” they’ll cry. Is it? Or is that all people are being offered? There’s a deeper societal issue here. About how uncreative we often are when it comes to our built environment and the new world we’re forging. About how low creativity sits on the agenda. Better housing builds better communities. Better designed spaces lead to better mental health and happiness, which ultimately impacts on local economies and productivity. Have we forgotten that too?
West Calder High School was in 108th position in the national school rankings. After completion of the new school building it moved to 12th position, with the design of the new facilities being noted as a factor in this improvement in an early HMie report. Up almost 100 places because of a building. Because the architect and the client knew what kind of spaces would stimulate learning, instil pride, improve performance. That building was commissioned by a client who knew exactly how important the built environment is to the pupils and the teaching staff. A creative space that bred creativity.
“The intention was to create architecture in which young people feel valued; if a young person actually wants to be at school, that is a good start to encourage effective learning.” – Kevin Cooper, architect
That’s the other thing about creativity, it’s infectious. An itch you need to scratch. We need to get more people scratching. And for longer. So how do we do that?
We need to be more creative! Yes, that’s true. But we need to get better at being open to and accepting of the creative solution. Of taking the time to consider that the unexpected and unusual might have us all galloping to meet that objective a darn sight faster.
“For creativity and effectiveness to thrive together, agencies and clients must share and believe that the two are irrefutably linked.”– Suzanne Powers
Be bolder. You hear that a lot in advertising. Does the consumer recognise boldness in an ad? Is bold ever a word they would use to describe a recent interaction? We’re expecting the idea to do all the heavy lifting, and it won’t.
Because it’s not the work that needs to be bold, it’s us.
That’s worth remembering.