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Rethinking Creativity

March 16, 2015 at 11:57am by Matthew Michels

The most recent Account Planning Group (APG) event in September featured a panel discussion on the merits of pre-testing creative. Emily Bain, partner and strategic planning director at john st., argued (on behalf of every creative agency on Earth) against the practice. To paraphrase, she described what we do as a process involving conceptual tools that can be honed through experience, and not some hubristic act of pulling ideas out of the ether. If a creative idea is rooted in a solid, empirically validated insight then the expression of that insight shouldn’t need further validation, assuming you trust the execution to talented creatives reporting in to experienced CDs.

Kevin Ashton, a.k.a. the guy who coined the term "the Internet of Things", wrote a provocative blog post that reminded me of Emily’s talk. He argues that innovative ideas and solutions are not the product of wizard-like genius, but of incremental discovery: testing hypotheses, collaborating, failing—what we commonly refer to as work. Give it a read.

We’re conditioned to fetishize creativity as being somehow distinct from the rest of our intellectual toolkit, some rare gift that can’t be learned or taught. The new line of thinking summarized by Ashton argues that all brilliant innovations—in any discipline from fine art to music to medicine to creative advertising—are derived from the same kind of thought processes we typically associate with learning to tie our shoes, or wiring a house.

This is relevant to us as advertisers because there seems to be some mystery to how we approach our work, which—understandably—is unsettling to some clients. If the mystery were explained away, would clients feel more comfortable trusting us to come up with the best idea? Would they feel less compelled to validate the expressions of our strategies by way of focus group participants, crammed into uncomfortable beige rooms and prodded to describe what is intended to influence them at a subconscious level?

We don't subject the work of civil engineers to the court of public opinion, because 1) we trust that they’re able to solve civil engineering problems with a high degree of probability and 2) non-civil engineers don’t know much about civil engineering. Granted, infrastructure is inspected to ensure structural integrity, but then don’t we inspect campaign performance with actual business results and brand health tracking surveys, and award CASSIEs or lose accounts on that empirical basis?

The word 'creativity' is only 75 years old, so it’s not so radical to suggest that we start thinking about it differently. We’ve put it on a pedestal and roped it off like a rare artifact, which has enshrouded its practitioners in an impenetrable veil. Creativity, though, is simply the application of practical reason to questions that are rooted in the subjectivity of human experience: What sounds interesting? What looks beautiful? What do I need to say to a certain kind of person, in order to make them desire a certain kind of thing? Some of us are more talented than others at answering these questions, with sharp instincts honed over the course of a lifetime of learning. There’s no mystery to it, though.



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On the blog of john you’ll find short articles written by our people. It will include thoughts and opinions on advertising, brand strategy, planning, digital, social media, design, careers, pop culture and relevant trends.