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Creativity, where art thou?

The big idea – the brand story running throughout a campaign and the entire business – can’t come from a rulebook or a set of data. So where does creativity come from?

Historically, neuropsychologists have identified the brain’s right hemisphere as the seat of creativity. It lights up when we solve problems in a pictorial or musical way, as opposed to a logical and linguistic way associated with the left hemisphere.

But how does that help us? Not much, other than we are now a lot better at creating environments that are conducive to creativity using comfortable furnishings, light, music, colour and visual stimuli. There are lots and lots of competing theories about how to boost creativity and productivity, from Edward de Bono’s ‘Lateral Thinking’ shtick to the use of neuro-linguistic programming in education.

A whole industry seems to have built up around this sort of stuff, much of it pure chicanery in our view. But here are a few nuggets from famous thinkers, writers and inventors worth throwing into the mix:

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.” (Edward de Bono, thinker)

“Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things.” (Ray Bradbury, writer)

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.” (Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple)

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” (Albert Einstein, physicist)

“Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas.” (Edward de Bono, thinker)

“True creativity often starts where language ends.” (Arthur Koestler, writer)

“Creativity takes courage.” (Henri Matisse, artist)

“Properly practiced creativity can make one ad do the work of ten.” (Bill Bernbach, ad legend)

Lots of food for thought there. But it illustrates the point that there is never one answer to the question. Some argue that creativity is merely remixing what was there before, or making new connections between existing elements, as Jobs said. Our dreams seem deeply personal and quirky, but they are really just amalgamations of everything we’ve seen and felt before re-sequenced by our unconscious minds.

Other believe inspiration comes from some mystical exterior source, often unsought and unexpected. The truth is that as marketers we can’t wait around for inspiration to strike; we have deadlines and clients to service.

So is there a way we can free ourselves from hackneyed thinking and, as the poet Robert Frost wrote, take the road “less traveled by”? Can we embed creativity into all our business processes?

I think the key is to have courage, as Matisse said. We can get inspiration from anywhere as long as we’re not stymied by our own timidity and self-consciousness. So many of us have a kind of locked-in syndrome whereby we stick to tried-and-tested methodologies and produce mediocre work as a result. This has been the bane of B2B marketing. One of the most debilitating human characteristics is the fear of making fools of ourselves, so we play safe. But playing safe isn’t safe at all; it’s risky business.

As we’ve said, inspiration doesn’t have to come from the features of the product itself. Plenty of successful campaigns have simply focused on the brand name, logo or colour, from the curiously obvious Silk Cut ads to the provocative French Connection “fcuk” logo; from the Macdonald’s golden arches to the purple associated with a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate bar and the red associated with the Economist magazine masthead.

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