The Science of Original Thought

Creativity is one of those things that everyone gets, but no one really understands. Its output colours every detail of our lives, yet it remains an intangible on account of the fact that its impact is judged by emotional connectivity. That makes it – and I’m searching for a technical term, here – fluffy.

But, it seems, fluffy is the new black. The search for a creative nadir has spread its wings. In the past month I’ve seen, heard and facilitated more discussion about the role of creativity and ideas in public relations agencies than I have in a lifetime.

There is a slow-burn realisation that PR in all its forms is indeed a place of original thought – or at least, to misquote Voltaire – places in which judicious imitation is applied in the construct of a new idea.

For many of us who’ve worked in the industry over the years, the question of the natural nurturing ground for original thought has always been a vexed point. We’ve never quite understood why those whose task it is to create 30 second TV movies seem to hold a perceived monopoly as to the source of great ideas.

But perception is reality and perhaps why so much of the discussion we’ve witnessed keeps coming back to the default question that rests somewhere between structure and aptitude. Is there a legitimate and necessary role for Creative Directors in PR agencies?

The response to such a loose question is an equally ambiguous answer: it depends.

It depends on the propensity for creative intent within the agency at any given point in time; it depends on the infrastructure that might support such a role; and it depends on the ability of the individual to channel the process of ideation to deliver a commercially relevant and meaningful solution.

But let’s step beyond the obvious. To grasp for a world in which Creative Directors become the imagination provocateurs and source of the ground-breaking idea, is troubling.

Part of that concern rests in the fact that there’s something inherently retrospective about the appointment of a Creative Director to fulfil a very contemporary opportunity for PR agencies. I can’t help asking myself why an industry in the ascent might choose to snatch at roles that have traditionally belonged to industries that are now in decline.

The PR industry has the opportunity to reframe its potential as a reference point for creativity. There’s no small irony in the fact that the appointment of a Creative Director in an effort to bring more creativity to an organisation might well lack creativity in itself.

For a start, if we’re going to borrow from the past, we should be looking to hire Planners and Strategists to provide the context in which the creative genius can be released. And then there’s the thorny issue that PR agencies are populated with people who might just consider themselves imagineers – or at least as people who’s contribution goes beyond account management. That brings the possibility of a cultural upheaval into play.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s not creativity lectures for the masses. Nor is it a hefty upgrade in a suite of devices that promise far more creative output. And if the relaxation of dress code rules at the office constitutes a more creative outlook for you, then you’ll be disappointed.

It is science. Now there’s a word to drench the fires of imagination.

Yes indeedy. In an environment where creative thinking has long been attributed to the colourful genius of the inspiring few, the prospect of applying science and analytical thought to determine a creative solution by the masses is akin to putting Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon through the Hadron Collider. It’s an exercise grounded in a complete and utter misunderstanding of the point.

And yet there’s plenty of room for both art and science in the search for an original idea. It’s a place where the rigour of formulaic thought combines with the liquid flow of creative juices to define an idea that not only inspires, but resolves a commercial need.

In no particular order, here are my thoughts on what needs to go into the creative melting pot.

A New State of Mind. Surrounding yourself with the same people and the same tools will put you on a merry dance towards the same idea you got so excited about last time. Which rather misses the point.

Naïve Experts. Someone, somewhere, has tackled the same problem as you. The fact that they are completely disconnected with your industry should be considered a benefit, not a hindrance. So find those ice-cream tasters; hunt down those pit-stop engineers; and grab those arborists. Their respective knowledge of flavour, service and growth could be remarkably insightful to the task at hand.

Space Travel. We rarely give much consideration to the impact of the spaces in which we choose to think. But they have a profound impact on our mood and the flow of people that might result in a collision of ideas. So if, for example, you want to find a creative solution that supports the launch of a new hearing aid, walk your colleagues past the brainstorm room and head straight for the quelled silence of the library to tease out your ideas – or, conversely, the mania of a ship’s engine room. Go on. See what happens.

Sensory Candy. Our brains are not passive receptors. They are fuelled by each of our senses every single day. So explore the new and look for the same from a different angle. In fact, just challenge yourself to do something different once a week and surprise yourself by your own imagination.

A Fear of Failure. One of the most viewed segments on TED Talks is Sir Ken Robinson’s glorious articulation of the role of schools play in killing creativity. At the heart of his argument is the belief that our education systems stigmatise failure. In other words, from an early age, we are educated into believing that we are either right or wrong – that there’s no middle ground. Whether you’re an advocate of Sir Ken’s determination or not, the fact is that we limit our creative spirit because of our concern about what is possible. So go back to your pre-schooling days for a moment and pretend that anything is possible.

Find a Killjoy. Stuart Kauffmann wrote of the “adjacent possible” – an environment that is limited by the constraints of reality. Be as bold and ambitious as you dare, but always have someone on hand to ground your idea in reality.

The Swiss Cheese Theory.  Airline accident investigators have a term they use to describe the statistical likelihood of multiple factors contributing to a crash. They call it the Swiss Cheese Theory. In other words, the prospect of a number of disconnected forces lining up to reveal an unlikely event. It’s what you and I might call serendipity and it’s the point at which you stumble upon something that you least expected. So keep your eyes open. The best ideas can be found in the most unlikely of places and rarely where you thought they might reside.

Hunch-back. This is the guttural stuff. The place where experience, intuition and good-old-fashioned hunches come to the fore. These are the thoughts you should never rely on but always go back to. This is the place where art and science meet. Hunches are the filters through which our rationale thought must be squeezed. And, let’s face it, they can be the magic dust too.

Original ideas are little without original thinking. And that requires more than a new job title in your midst – it demands a strategic approach to problem solving which absolutely has to be at the heart of the creative output.

Nothing within the strategic approach has to be either unique or particularly ingenious. But, combined, they acknowledge the extraordinary potential for original thought within an organisation and go some way in ensuring the PR industry makes the most of the opportunity now afforded to it.

About ianrumsby

Ian Rumsby is Australian Chairman and EVP Asia Pacific at global public relations firm, Weber Shandwick Worldwide. Like every PR flak he is a wannabe journalist. And the advent of blogging presents him with the chance to be exactly that. To some degree. Ian's agency career spans 17 years during which time he has worked for two PR firms. He joined Weber Shandwick Worldwide at its inception in 2001. Having ran the firm's Australian operation for 4 years, a business he continues to chair, he's now immersed in the Asian operation which he hopes will provide a plethora of material for his blog. Ian is English, fiercely proud of it and all the more so as someone who's been living in Sydney since 1998. During that time he has not sent a single Bondi Beach postcard to anyone in Blightly. Instead, he has focused his efforts on getting married, staying married and fathering two delightful young boys. So far, he has been successful on all counts. He's hoping his foray into cyberspace changes none of it.
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3 Responses to The Science of Original Thought

  1. Maha says:

    Profound . . thanks for breaking down what appears, from the outside, to be a simple process.

  2. I like this post. As someone who is married to a creative director, I’ve often day dreamed of being a CD myself. Mostly because they’re prestige seems to increase the more opinionated they become, which would make me very prestigious.

    Personally I don’t think there’s a role for a CD in a PR agency, at least the way our agencies are currently structured. PR agencies are built to foster generalists: we’re account managers, strategic planners, copywriters, CDs and even art directors at times, all rolled into one package (and people wonder why we work so late!).

    But I *would* favor restructuring our agencies in such a way that a CD (or AD, planner, etc.) would have a role to play. There’s probably some new roles to play, too.

  3. Pingback: Jye Smith on social media, digital media and story telling | A Digital Perspective

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