First coined by Edward De Bono in the late Sixties, the term lateral thinking has since entered the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as “seeking to solve problems by unorthodox or apparently illogical methods”.
“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the hole deeper,” is one of De Bono’s most oft-quoted axioms; certainly it illustrates why such principles might well be of use in a marketing environment, where digging oneself into an ever-deeper hole can be a horribly familiar sensation. “Lateral thinking is for changing concepts and perceptions,” De Bono argues. But are his techniques still relevant today? Are lateral thinking and creativity qualities that can be taught?
Creativity is a messy and confusing subject, but at its most basic, being “creative” means bringing something new into existence that was not there before. EHS Brann creative director Patrick Collister has a more precise definition. “I see creativity as essentially about competition. Marketing is about competition and is the most dog-eat-dog industry there is. Ultimately, it’s about the survival of the fittest brand. But there is a misconception that agencies and creative departments in particular have the exclusive right to creativity. That’s not true. Creativity can be taught. Not only can it be taught; it’s essential that it is.”
It’s a creative gift
This opinion leads Collister to run formal training courses, not just internally, but with the agency’s clients too. He adds: “There is no doubt in my mind that clients can benefit from developing lateral thinking techniques. Invention is as crucial in the marketing department of Tesco, say, as it is to us. Clients can have big ideas too.”
So, what kind of techniques would he use? “Give me fifty uses for a brick,” says Collister. Fifty? It seems an awful lot. “It forces you to go beyond the predictable – the first ten or twenty are bound to be pretty obvious. But after that, you’re compelled to have ideas you’d never normally have,” he adds. It’s beginning to make sense. “Now give me ten sexual uses for a brick,” he says. Bizarre images spring to mind. “That illustrates how narrowing the parameters can actually make you more, not less, creative in your thinking,” he says.
TSM creative director Sally Elms has a different take. She believes that some people have a genuine gift for lateral thinking, and coming up with off-the-wall ideas. She says: “I bet Spike Milligan never went on a training course in his life, yet if anyone ever thought outside the box, he was your man. Perhaps the biggest barrier to creativity – and certainly brainstorming – is fear. Fear of making a fool of yourself; of rejection and criticism.”
She says that this fear worsens when someone is part of a large group, and is especially true for junior members of staff. “The experience of brainstorming in front of one’s superiors can be intimidating. Here training can help. It’s my belief that you can teach people to be brave about putting their ideas forward. And after all, no single person has the monopoly on creative ideas,” she says.
Collister, who also trains in brainstorming techniques, agrees. “Often, the best thing you can get senior members of staff to do in a brainstorming session is to throw up their hands and admit they don’t have all the answers. That can go right against the grain, as they’ve been conditioned into believing that it’s up to them to lead the way. But it frees juniors to voice their opinions and fosters an atmosphere of openness and fun.”
Understanding the need for creativity in business – where there is on ongoing need to create products and services, solve problems and have the edge over competitors – is obvious. But with a plethora of training courses and workshops available, where does a company wishing to expand its approach to creativity start?
Collister says: “It’s useful to consider which side of the brain a candidate is already drawing on. I like to get traditional left-brainers thinking with their right side, and vice versa.” He adds that clients and account handlers can benefit from using the right-hand side of their brains for their jobs – with the emphasis on organisation, administration and leadership – draw heavily on “left-brain skills”. He adds: “Equally, art directors and writers can benefit from developing more structured, analytic ways of thinking – techniques they might instinctively shun, but which when used to help disseminate a brief can prove invaluable.”
Cramm Francis Woolf group account director Samantha Kennedy says: “Creatives have one way of looking at a problem; account handlers another. By working together, both parties can learn to think laterally, outside their own boxes. Account handlers can often offer a better insight into how the client works, how their customers behave, what the competition is doing. We balance each other – creatives help us to be more ambitious and imaginative with ideas and proposals, and we can advise on the practicalities of implementing an idea.”
At Cramm Francis Woolf, creatives and account handlers are both involved in internal training sessions, which cover a range of topics including brainstorming, the target market and communications goals, propositions, processes, and presenting creative ideas. Kennedy adds: “We’ve found this incredibly effective in encouraging free-flowing ideas, team building between internal departments and, just as importantly, giving added value to our clients.”
Elms agrees, she says: “It’s very useful to work with account handlers who understand the benefits of lateral thinking. Which is where training from an outside source can really help. After all, in an increasingly competitive market, a lateral thought may lie at the heart of a solution that lifts a brand to another level and ultimately makes it a money-spinner. If those in client services have an understanding of the way creatives work – and vice versa – it engenders mutual respect, better ideas and a more profitable business.”
Elms is very enthusiastic about training, but she does have reservations. She questions how long the benefits of training can last, especially when you are attempting to break patterns that have been established over years, or even decades. “A therapist wouldn’t expect you to change your entire way of behaviour after one session. It’s all too easy to come out of a workshop filled with zeal, then slip back into old ways. Some follow-up sessions in addition might be a good idea, to keep you on the ball. Maybe an hour a week’s mentoring, something like that,” she says.
Colin Clews is a life coach who focuses on creativity issues and would be delighted by Elms’ suggestion because one-to-one weekly coaching is his speciality. He says: “It can be difficult to break patterns of behaviour, which is why being regularly answerable to an independent party can benefit.”
He believes there are several factors that can hamper creativity, such as a lack of self-discipline and forward planning. “Personal organisation is key. I encourage my clients to examine their time management and the way they work. It’s often simple things that do the trick – I’m amazed at how many home-workers fail to establish a proper workspace for themselves, for instance. A physical environment that encourages creativity is bright and open, not cluttered,” he says.
Clews also works for larger businesses, and suggests ways that whole companies can improve creativity. “Any organisation is a collective of individuals. So, a fundamental consideration is how the company addresses individual issues. What does it do to encourage or undermine risk-taking ideas? How much of the risk is it prepared to share? A question that tests this is ‘How does an organisation deal with ideas that are outside its traditional mode of thinking or operation?’ Does it react by ridiculing or criticising – dismissing suggestions with a patronising response? Or does it genuinely encourage ideas by investing in a coaching or mentoring programme
Royal Bank of Scotland Commercial Services (RBSCS) marketing manager Richard Blyth has some answers. “A lot of companies say they challenge the norm, but in reality they just pay lip-service to new ideas. At RBSCS we operate autonomously, so have the opportunity to act like a smaller business. Because our marketing department only has a team of 15, it can create a genuine forum where people can express ideas without fear they’ll be shot down.”
In addition, RBSCS says it is happy to work directly with the creatives from its agency, The River Communications Group, and bounce around ideas together. “Recently their creative director, Dave Gullen, came in to directly work with us,” says Blyth. “The results were very positive – there was far less to-ing and fro-ing over copy – in fact, we were able to sign off the very first draft.”
So, with clients and account handlers becoming more creative, and creatives becoming more systematic in their thinking, does this mean anyone could do anyone else’s job? Should creatives worry that, once their peers are trained in lateral thinking, they’ll be redundant? As Collister says: “Anyone can be creative, I think the whole term ‘creative department’ is a misnomer. What copywriters and art directors are is artisans – skilled workers, trained in their craft. That takes time, and can’t be learned overnight.’
De Bono’s website says: “An ordinary person tied up with rope cannot play a violin – that’s obvious. But if the rope is cut, does that make the liberated person a violinist? Cutting the rope is only a small step. The person has to acquire the skill of violin playing. It is the same with creativity. Being liberated is by no means the whole process. It is also necessary to acquire creative skills.”