Creative curiosity

Buried in all the books by advertising legends, there is one remarkably consistent insight: creative people have voracious appetites for information from diverse and eclectic fields.

John Hegarty writes in his book of advertising life-lessons, ‘Hegarty on Creativity‘.

“The truly great creative people I know are constantly working. Looking, thinking, watching. They are curious by nature, fascinated not just by their own interests and experiences but those of other people too. Everything they encounter is being absorbed, processed, and reformed, eventually to return in some new shape as an idea. I think of these people as transmitters – they absorb diverse, random messages, influences, and thoughts, then reinterpret and play them back to an audience in new and fresh ways.

Being fascinated, inquisitive, informed, and engaged is an all day, every day activity. It doesn’t have an on-off button. It doesn’t have a stopwatch attached. It is constant. A way of living and of being that never switches off. If you don’t want to live like that then don’t follow a creative profession.”

From James Webb Young‘s famous manual, ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’:

“Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested – from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”

From Dave Trott‘s book Creative Mischief:

“Really creative people are fascinated by ‘new’ stuff.

But that doesn’t just mean the latest technology.

It means stuff that is new to them.

It might be 100 years old, but they’ve never seen before.

It might be an African sculpture, a Russian film, shocking piece of graffiti, agraphic one label, a strange chair.

The cleverness, for them, is finding something original and unusual.”
From Carl Alley, quoted in Creative Mischief:
“The creative person wants to be a know it all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, 19th century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. He never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen in six minutes later, or six years down the road. But still creative person’s faith that it will happen.”
“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well-informed, or your idea will be a relevant. Stuff your unconscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you”

The experience of working with and observing many talented strategic thinkers (mostly, but not always, Account Planners), has led me to the conclusion that there is, in the best ones, a highly developed sense of curiosity. I hesitate to call it innate, since I believe it can be honed and sharpened as a skill, though I suspect the kernel must be there at the outset.

I think it’s fair to say that creative curiosity has become widely acknowledged as a fundamental requirement of a creative thinker.

Collaboration, committees and consensus

I recently read Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!). It’s a collection of 120 vignettes which form a broad autobiographical narrative of George Lois‘ career interwoven with his key advertising lessons. One of those lessons, ‘Reject Group Grope’, rallies against the formation of large teams to solve problems or create ideas.

“Think about this: Decisive, breakthrough creative decision-making is almost always made by one, two, or possibly three minds working in unison, take it or leave it. Collective thinking usually leads to stalemate or worse. And the smarter the individuals in the group, the harder it is to nail the idea. Certainly, in my experience as a mass communicator and cultural provocateur, I know this to be absolutely true: Group thinking and decision-making results in group grope.”

This stood out to me as it conflicts with the common assumption that an increase in the amount of people working on a problem will result in a better solution.

But it seems this perspective is not unusual.

Here’s David Ogilvy in Ogilvy on Advertising:

Most campaigns are too complicated. They reflect a long list of objectives, and try to reconcile the divergent views of too many executives. By attempting to cover too many things, they achieve nothing.

Many commercials and many advertisements look like the minutes of a committee. In my experience, committees can criticise, but they cannot create.

Search the parks in all your cities. You’ll find no statues of committees.

And then there’s this from John Hegarty‘s book “Hegarty on Creativity”.

“Much today is written about collaboration and the need to work or brainstorm with others in order to to bring an idea to fruition.

It’s all very friendly and inclusive but be careful: Collaboration can easily turn into consensus.

Which rapidly becomes ordinary. Sitting around on beanbags holding hands and having a happy-clappy meeting will not lead to greatness.

Some people believe you can create brilliance by brainstorming with lots of people.

Well, you can’t.”

Or to quote perhaps the most impactful line in Hegarty’s paragraph:

“Collaboration becomes consensus.”

Three greats, one opinions. But I’ll leave the last word to the inimitable Bob Hoffman:

“What I am against is the fantasy that creativity is the result of group hugs and harmonious collaborations. You want creativity? Hire talent. End of story.”