Think about the last time you thought something was creative. Was it a your own or an agency’s creative work, a new product, design or a service? What criteria did you apply to decide whether it was creative? The envy factor is often how I judge creative ideas – ‘ooh, I wish I’d thought of that!’ Whilst we may think we’re being rational, our first reaction is always emotional (intuitive, unconscious, fast) rather than systematic logical thinking based on evidence as we know from Daniel Kahneman’s masterly book Thinking Fast and Slow.
Of course being objective matters whether you’re a scientist, a judge, a fashion designer or a marketer. The UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising says that judging ideas is ‘where personal tastes and preferences can collide with process and consensus. It requires imagination, leadership and trust. Inevitably it leads to conflict.’
The first chapter of my new book on creativity in business In Your Creative Element explores how a shared definition of creativity, and agreeing what constitutes a big idea, can help inform and assess work internally and externally, direct your briefing process and make creative conversations easier.
But what makes an idea brilliant and creative rather than ordinary or mundane?
WPP agency Millward Brown works with some of the world’s biggest companies to research and develop brand-marketing campaigns. They define a big idea as ‘a game-changer. It shifts paradigms and turns category convention on its head’. It must ‘resonate, be disruptive, have talk value, transcend cultural and geographic boundaries and stretch the brand without straining credibility or believability’ (Hernandez, 2012).
I interviewed ITV’s ‘Pope of Soap’ John Whiston (Creative Director of serial dramas, responsible for Coronation Street and Emmerdale) who told me:
In terms of a ‘Good Idea’ – for me it’s heart. In that, when you hear it, it has the same effect on you as a good joke. It’s out there. It makes you gasp a bit because it’s so wrong and so beyond the pale. And deep down I know you can drag an idea like that back inside the pale by the application of intellect and craft skill. Far harder (I would say impossible) would be to push a so-so idea, an idea that your brain says is OK and workable and relevant etc, to somewhere it can become great. In my view, no amount of the application of intellect or craft skill will get it there’
When it comes to evaluating your ideas, as Dean Poole, creative director of New Zealand’s Alt Group, says in A Smile in the Mind: ‘The key question is never what the idea is, but what the idea has to do.’
I’ve identified 62 elements to make up a Periodic Table of Creative Elements, which I explore in the book, and the elements of novelty, value and surprise – ways to measure how useful an idea is – are the first three.
These concepts are at play in Heineken’s 10-step ‘creative ladder’ – a framework designed to evaluate ideas. The Dutch brewer set out to create a shared language and definition to raise the bar on their work and improve communication around the creative process. The company uses the ladder to define what great work is, and to evaluate its own creative output as well as that of other brands.
Arif Haq is an ex-PepsiCo marketer who now leads the creative capabilities practice at Contagious Insider, who worked with Heineken to develop the ladder. He told me:
‘The real power of the ladder is not in the number but rather in the descriptions of each rung. I’ve seen clients use that language verbatim in creative discussions and it transforms their ability to have meaningful conversations about an area in which they have not previously been professionally trained.
Nearly all brands these days talk the talk of creativity, but much fewer actually put in place the tools or knowledge to help their people achieve it day to day. Soundbites like ‘creativity needs bravery!’ or ‘you need to risk your career on work that you love not just like’ don’t help on their own. Without the walk to accompany the talk, they risk reducing a powerful business tool to a mere slogan.’
Language matters to help define the type of creativity and ideas you’re looking for
Google’s so called ‘moon shots’ are a good example of using language to set the creative bar – high. Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page doesn’t believe in making small improvements – he’s looking for breakthrough ideas that will change the status quo. Google’s 10x process sets out to make any product 10 times better than its competitors. As Page explained in Wired Magazine:
‘It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change. So a big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental.’
Even this one distinction – whether you want breakthrough or incremental ideas – has the ability to radically change the outcome of a brief. What kind of creativity do you want?
Closer to home bookmaker Paddy Power is famous for its ‘Mischief Department’¬ – the name drives a clear creative direction, one that points to risk-taking and pushing boundaries. In order to drive bets, the Mischief Department has hijacked sporting events to create headlines across the world’s media. Stunts have involved Stephen Hawking, the Vatican, illegal immigrants and the Amazon rainforest. Despite being a listed company Paddy Power says it has a ‘tongue-in-cheek attitude’ to marketing.
Harry Dromey was Paddy Power’s chief Mischief Maker from 2013 to 2015. He told me:
“The riskiest thing is to be boring. You need an element of risk to make great creative work. You also need to foster a culture, the right atmosphere and the attitude. Things get lost to consumers if messaging is bland.”
Of course evaluating ideas combines both rational and emotional thinking. It’s not always going to be straightforward to determine what great and not-so-great looks like for your business. It requires debate, trust and collaboration (which are all creative elements too) and often a good dose of courage to argue for an idea.
But it’s a given that a business will have benchmarks – for sales, customer service or staff retention – why not for creativity too? A shared definition of creativity in your business can act as the North Star for your creative work so that everyone in the organisation knows what’s expected and can strive to achieve it.