Planning spontaneity

Are marketers being stifled by uninspiring surroundings and work practices? An increasing number of employers are trying to inject some fun into their companies in an attempt to get creative juices flowing, says Alicia Clegg

What do employers look for in a marketing professional? A glance through the recruitment pages of Marketing Week suggests that drive, commercial awareness and passion will get you to the top. Recently, however, management thinkers have been lobbying for another quality to be added to the list: the ability to have fun.

The business case for “fun” runs something like this: children are naturally playful and creative, therefore cultures that encourage people to let their imaginations run riot should harvest a richer crop of ideas – some of which will turn out to be commercially exploitable – than those where the emphasis is on stewing single-mindedly over a hot PC.

The supposed link between playfulness and great discovery isn’t a new one. Albert Einstein was famed for his childlike curiosity and fondness for mind games. The Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel had fun crossing pea plants in his potting shed and in the process discovered the secrets of genetic inheritance. So, are we all potentially capable of making breakthrough connections, if only we could learn to let go and rediscover our early passions and enthusiasms? Or are companies that hire consultants to teach their staff how to become more creative simply engaging in a large dose of wishful thinking?

Erminia Blackden, a senior planner at direct marketing agency Draft London, believes that creativity is down to the way that our brains are wired: whether we are “left-brain thinkers”, favouring logic and analysis; or “right-brain people”, who work through intuition and free association.

Thinking allowed

She says: “Pure right-brainers, the Damien Hirsts of this world, have no difficulty getting their thoughts out, because their thinking isn’t hampered by process or formal structures, it just all comes out.” Less spontaneous personalities also have interesting perspectives to contribute, but they struggle to express them. “Many people kill off their most creative thoughts before they get to the surface because they don’t seem ordered, structured and complete.”

One way to beat a habit that has come to dominate your life is to give yourself permission to do something different – even if just for a short while. Brain-storming sessions work on this principle, by forbidding people to exercise their critical judgement while they indulge their imagination. But giving yourself permission to think creatively is not, in itself, a recipe for success. In fact, according to Chris Brown, partner at innovation company What If, the more we strive to be original the harder our brains work to pull us back to our old routines.

Break from the routine

What Brown is describing is the brain’s “self-organising mechanism”. The basic idea is that most of the time our minds work like automated filing systems, categorising and storing information under logical headings for easy retrieval. When faced with a challenge we think back to what we have done in the past and work from what we already know. For day-to-day activities, such as dressing or driving a car, that is exactly what we need to do to get things done. But when we want to think creatively, a pattern-matching approach to problem solving can close our eyes to new possibilities.

Creativity coaches have developed a range of techniques to get people off the treadmill of repetitive thinking. One popular method, known as problem reversal, involves turning an issue on its head. “If you want your customers to buy more, it can be helpful to start by thinking about the things that would make them buy less,” says Nick Fitzherbert, consultant at training and development company Magic Management.

Random association is another approach that can help to wean us away from making clichéd associations. So, for example, a facilitator on a project to develop a children’s fizzy drink might ask the team to call out their top-of-the-mind impressions of different countries. “Thinking of Tibet might open up the idea of purity and simplicity as opposed to the bold, brash style of the US,” says James Osmond, a director at marketing agency Clear. A third possibility, borrowed from the realms of behavioural psychology, is to try to jolt the brain off auto-pilot by getting people to vary some minor but significant habit in their daily routine, such as the radio station that they listen to, or the route they take to work.

While research suggests that a little unpredictability can work wonders for creativity, there is a limit to what disruptive techniques can achieve on their own. This is a particular problem for marketing professionals in large organisations, who are obliged to follow set processes and procedures, says Osmond. To capitalise on the potential creativity of their employees, companies must be prepared to invest not only in training, but also in the creation of a workplace culture that reinforces creative behaviour.

Get out more

To begin with, people have to understand that it is acceptable, even expected, that they will take time out during working hours to seek the stimulus which is needed to come up with fresh ideas. Such excursions might involve anything from talking to companies in other industries, to touring a cathedral, watching movies or going on rides at an adventure theme park. Precisely what people do isn’t important, says Unilever Marketing Academy vice-president consumer connection and marketing strategy Helen Lewis. The key thing is that it gets them off “thinking narrowly around their brand category”.

Lewis adds that another imperative, if you are organising a creative session, is to ensure that you build in a range of stimuli – both experiential and intellectual – as what works for oneperson may not work for another. “You never know what will provoke a breakthrough idea, so build in as much variety as possible.”

Transposing creativity techniques into day-to-day working is a challenge that many companies fail to overcome. To take a simple example, resisting the temptation to shoot down a colleague’s off-the-wall suggestion in a specially convened creativity session, where everybody knows the ground rules, is not too difficult; being open-minded enough to spot the hidden possibilities of odd-ball ideas in your day-to-day dealings with colleagues is more challenging. Yet according to Brown this is precisely the sort of cultural change that has to happen if companies are ever to make the transition from cautious adaptation to genuinely radical innovation.

The view from the outside

To tackle this challenge, companies have started appointing creativity facilitators to turn what the company has learned from outside trainers into business as usual. For instance, Unilever has created a network of 600 insight facilitators who have been trained by consultants from What If. Media agency Vizeum has gone a step further, by appointing Rupert Millington, a former What If employee, as its worldwide director of innovation, with the brief of fostering innovation throughout the agency’s network.

Failure leads to success

Millington says: “Nurturing innovation involves setting up the right motivations. There has to be a clear expectation in the business that innovation will help you to get promoted. You must also get across to managers that spectacular failures are as much a part of innovation as great successes. A business which is genuinely committed to innovation is one that celebrates its heroic failures, as well as the triumphs.”

Brown also stresses the importance of learning from experience and in particular the importance of mastering the art of giving feedback to colleagues that is honest but also constructive. But what should you do if your bosses turn down an idea that you believe in passionately? Do you accept their decision with as much grace as you can muster, or keep pushing your cause at the risk of making yourself unpopular? Adam Morgan, founder of Eatbigfish and an authority on successful challenger brands, believes the quality which distinguishes innovative companies from the rest of the field is not so much creativity as courage. “It’s not having the idea that counts, it is pushing for it afterwards,” he argues.

Buying into the idea that innovation is as much about courage as imagination has implications for the personal development of marketing professionals. One possibility is that innovation training should be aimed at making people not only more imaginative in their thinking, but also more courageous in their behaviour. But precisely what sort of challenge is appropriate for marketers is unclear.

One school of thought is that people grow in stature when they are tested both mentally and physically. The difficulty here, however, is that leadership programmes that call upon people to demonstrate resourcefulness in a hostile physical environment tend to favour those who are by nature outdoor types, daring in a physical sense but not necessarily more courageous than their colleagues in other ways.

It takes all sorts

And perhaps there is another dimension to building a creative culture that deserves to be explored more fully. In an ideal world, marketing professionals would be gifted all-rounders; exceptionally talented people combining passionate curiosity with the sheer bloody-mindedness that is needed to turn inspiration into action. But individuals are rarely like that.

If companies genuinely want to change the way the world thinks, they need to build teams that combine all types of personality and talent: feisty champions, pioneers and those who make breakthrough discoveries pondering the small everyday things in life – such as peas in a potting-shed.


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