Sunday, November 27

Lessons from the real Mad Men

Photo: Lukas Riebling

For many months I’ve been planning a visit to an advertising agency, and on Monday it finally happened.  My hypothesis was that if any industry is in the business of creating ideas, then advertising is the industry.   And I was keen to see how they do it.

I’ve no idea if agencies usually open their doors to outside observers like me, but on this occasion I was able to call in a favour.    And I’m very glad I did …

The agency in question was “Gyro”, one of the larger multi-nationals with around 600 staff around the world.   And what better agency to visit, given their mission to create “ideas which ignite emotions”?

My initial impressions just served to underline the stereotype:  The London office is in Chelsea Harbour, amidst dozens of other companies from the creative industries; and scooters and bubblegum machines littered the reception area, which was almost exactly what I expected.

After the first five minutes though, Gyro began to confound my expectations. 

I was met by Pete, the Creative Director, who nevertheless seemed extremely down-to-earth.   He doesn’t live in Bloomsbury; he doesn’t wear a monocle; he doesn’t keep two pipes in his breast pocket, and he doesn’t ride a unicycle to work.

The second surprise was the immediate offering-up of a creative process.    I’d expected that I would have to eke-out some semblance of a process by observing an amorphous mass of arty activity.  But instead, Pete talked me through Gyro’s method within the first few of minutes.   In my Sherlock Holmesy gusto to discover-that-which-is-hidden, I was almost disappointed.

Apparently Gyro’s process is not so different from that used in other agencies, and it certainly bears a striking resemblance to the sequence immortalised in James Webb-Young’s 1939 classic:  A Technique for Generating Ideas.   I’ll paraphrase the steps here, to avoid revealing too much of Gyro’s hand …

1. Define the question
2. Generate large numbers of raw ideas
3. Assess those ideas against the brief
4. Elaborate the promising ones, and reform or abandon the rest
5. Reflect

You might easily identify with steps 1 to 4.  Even to the untrained eye they seem perfectly sensible, whereas step 5 feels like a luxury.   In fact Pete was keen to point out the importance of step 5:  If we don’t sleep on an idea, we can too easily get carried away with a seductive idea which is actually unworkable.

So if Gyro follows a similar process to other agencies, how does it differentiate in a crowded market?  Pete gave me several views on this, but the most striking was the way Gyro tackles step 2.   Whereas some other agencies assign small teams to work through all the steps, Gyro uses its large size to draw more staff into the generation of ideas.   In some instances, it is even able to draw the entire company in.   When 600 creative people cluster around a client’s problem I expect the results can be pretty mind-blowing (in fact I've already seen some evidence of this!)

The next step on my tour was a meeting to discuss a new client brief.   I keenly watched the way the team discussed the details of the advertising problem, but restrained themselves from discussing specific ideas there and then.   Instead, they went away individually for two days to come up with simple pictoral representations (“Scamps” or “Tissues”) of large numbers of ideas.   I guess this behaviour is the advertising equivalent of de Bono’s Yellow Hat – a way of avoiding the kind of early criticism which can kill excellent ideas unless they’re already well-articulated.

I made my own small contributions to the Art Director after the meeting.  He wrote three of them down, but I guess the odds are against me.   The quality and quantity of his own ideas will almost certainly overwhelm mine, but I’ll keep an eye-out just in case anything of mine sees the light of day.   (I won’t share my ideas here, partly because of client confidentiality … but more importantly to save embarrassment!)

After lunch I interviewed James, the Art Director working on the brief.   I was keen to find out what he’d be doing in the next two days. 

Some of the observations from James (and Pete) reaffirmed my views on creativity:

- Working away from the office in a quiet environment is important.
- Everyone at Gyro is encouraged to broaden the collective knowledge of the company by doing something extracurricular – perhaps pursuing outside hobbies, or forging links to other companies.
- Brainstorming should be focused, facilitated and short!   Nothing is “a bad idea” and - participants should be encouraged to build on each other’s thoughts.
- The only tools needed are pen and paper, but the internet is also useful for research.
- The team will have ideas kicking around in their minds almost continuously over the next two days.

So what would I most like to apply, back in the day-job?

Two things:

1. Mental Preparation:  Advertising agencies have learn that they need to prepare clients to receive ideas.  There’s even an industry publication from the “IPA” on this subject (more of which in a future posting).   If I’m going encourage creative thinking in a non-creative industry, I think I need to work harder on readying the audience at the receiving end.
2. Time:  Creatives at Gyro often get the luxury of spending hours or days working on nothing but ideas.   This is one of the reasons why it looks easy.  Other industries would baulk at this, considering it a waste of time, but actually this kind of commitment is necessary to hit on the best ideas, and it can be incredibly fruitful, more than repaying the investment.

A fantastic visit then, and well-worth my investment.   Thanks to Pete and James at Gyro for making me feel like one of the team from the moment I walked in.

Friday, November 11

Creativity in the Creative Industries

Now this week's post is a bit of a departure for me.  I was meant to be sticking to the NON-creative industries wasn't I?

Anyway, through a complex web of intricate accidents I have more occasion than normal to consider industries like broadcasting and publishing at the moment, and I'll be considering the advertising industry in a great deal of depth in the weeks to come.

And one of the first things that should strike even the casual observer of the creative industries is that ... actually ... they're not all that creative either.  In the same way that only a small proportion of staff at a construction company actually design bridges, very few people in a large corporate “creative” company actually create.  The residue of the staff mostly concern themselves with project management, team leading, having (non-creative) meetings, service management, client management, supplier management, contracts management etc.

In a way, this reminds me why I write this blog, and it inspires me to think that my potential audience might be bigger than I'd considered.  A bit of rebranding is in order ...
From:  Creative thinking for the non-creative INDUSTRIES
To:  Creative thinking for the non-creative PROFESSIONS

So it's natural to ask whether non-creative professionals in creative industries can actually access creativity more easily than their peers in the analytical industries.

I strongly doubt it.  I suspect that the APPARENT barriers will be a slightly different shape, but just as large and impenetrable.  It won't be that they don't KNOW any creative people on their organisations, just that they make their living by NOT being creative, and they will likely wish to preserve the distinction for fear of being compared to the (unstructured? unmanageable? unscientific?) “talent”.

What a wasted opportunity!

It's at times like this when I start banging on about "shadowing". What if a media designer swapped jobs for the day with a systems analyst?  Or if they shadowed each other for a day?

With their minds and eyes fully open there must be masses they could each learn, enabling them to get new angles on the same old challenges.

Every few months my company sends senior executives "back to the floor" to do entry-level jobs.  Or rather to SHADOW people doing entry-level jobs (that's really all they're qualified for!)

The execs say that they come away with fresh insight and a renewed appreciation for the quality of work at lower levels of the organisation.  I guess they would say that wouldn't they? ... but actually, knowing a couple of them as I do, I happen to believe them.

What do we think about everyone doing one day of job shadowing per year, alongside someone whose job is a million miles removed from their own?  Good idea?

What about randomising the allocations?

What about doing this between organisations, rather than just within organisations?

Wednesday, November 2

Unconscious Creativity

I shared an interesting chat with an old friend in the pub recently.  This is something I do far too little of these days, and that's my fault more than anyone else's.

Anyway, it turns out he's discovered this blog, started keeping tabs on my innermost reflections, and even started asking my wife about my schedule if posts don't appear routinely on a Friday!

Aside from this all being quite unsettling, it prompted an interesting beer-fuelled discussion.  And one which I may need you, the reader, to arbitrate upon ...

My friend's contention was that software developers (a job we've both done in past lives) are actually quite creative in their problem-solving, despite their reputation as analytical thinkers.  The example he gave was one where it was necessary to overcome a network security limitation, and the ultimate solution involved introducing layers of abstraction which weren't themselves constrained in the same as the elementary components.

(Stick with me.  It's layman’s language for the rest of this post.)

I was forced to concede that, yes, this was an example of lateral thinking.  And that created a dilemma for me:  this was precisely the kind of thing I was very good at back in my coding days, but I've been arguing all this time that I had no skill in creative thinking back then.

So what's going on here?  After a bit of head-scratching, I think I have it ...

The software developer who arrived at this solution hit upon a good alternative, which circumnavigated the immediate obstacles.  But he did so using established pathways in the brain.  He was doubtless well-trained, and used intra-domain knowledge to solve the problem.

That's a good thing when the problem is well-defined, and we know what “good” looks like. 

In this example the problem could be considered closed once two computers successfully exchanged messages.  Without devaluing his skills for a moment, a great many similarly-qualified people could have hit upon the same solution.

But what if the ideal solution is not clear, and we’re seeking many and varied alternatives? 
What if there's no clearly articulated problem at all, and our challenge is instead to carve-out new opportunities?  Or what if we’re looking for a rather unique way forward: one which couldn’t be duplicated by competing organisations?

This is where I’d draw a useful distinction between 'lateral thinking' (in the popular usage of the term) and ’creative thinking’.  When faced with a brick wall, the analyst tries to break through it; the lateral thinker tries to go around it; but the creative thinker can also countenance flying over it, spiriting it away with sorcery, playing musical chairs with it, crawling underneath it, or shrinking down to microscopic size and squeezing through cracks in the mortar.  These alternative ideas emerge from employing external knowledge from foreign domains.

If only I'd thought of all that in the pub.   Maybe next time!

What do you think?  Do I draw a valid distinction here?