Defend Truth


Creativity and the science of goofing off


Brett Morris is Chief Executive Officer of Nahana Communications Group.

One of the most intriguing things for me about advertising is that we sell creativity. We pay people to come to work every day to ‘be creative’ and come up with creative ways to market our clients’ products. In simple terms, how it works is we develop a strategy, give the creative team a brief and ask them to find the most memorable way of conveying a message. And if you’re lucky enough to have clients who value creativity, which we do, the end result can be very compelling. Even inspiring.

One of the questions that I get asked most often, about the advertising industry, is ‘How do you come up with ideas?’ That’s a very interesting question and one that I’ve never really been able to answer. What I’ve always intuitively known about ideas is that they tend to come out of nowhere. They generally don’t happen in a very structured way. What I’ve recently discovered is that there’s actually a scientific reason for that.

In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer notes that there are certain fundamental truths about moments of insight. One is that it that creative inspiration tends to come ‘out of the blue’. This is because the anterior superior temporal gyrus, the part of the brain that solves Compound Remote Associate Problems (an unfortunate but memorable acronym) will only generally spark when you are relaxed. In advertising, simplistically, we are asked to solve Compound Remote Associate Problems, which is to say various problems or challenges that are connected through lateral associations. For example, we have this product; we have this insight about people who may buy the product; we have this strategy and this is the business challenge – how do we communicate this in a single compelling idea?

What Lehrer explains is that the best way to have a moment of insight is actually when you are not looking for the answer. If you obsess about a problem and stare anxiously at a blank piece of paper, you won’t likely have a breakthrough. That’s why these moments generally happen when you are in the shower or playing Ping Pong or generally goofing off. Sadly, this is not to say the key to being creative is goofing off. In my experience the best creative people are the most disciplined. They are very serious and calculated about their craft but they are also prone to distraction. And distraction, it seems, is a fundamental part of creativity.

Which is interesting when you consider that lots of modern, innovative companies like Google have ping pong tables and meditation rooms and cafes and various other distractions in their offices. These facilities may have been implemented ostensibly as a quaint notion of staff wellbeing but they’re actually functioning as important distractions. Creative people are not content with sitting at a cubicle and pouring their mental energy into a problem; they want to be distracted. In fact, they need to be distracted.

Google offices

This is an important tension that exists in ad agencies and, whether they realise it or not, in any business that requires people to innovate on any level. A creative process needs a certain amount of time and space to happen. But as we are increasingly expected to deliver better, faster and cheaper, it is becoming more and more difficult to protect this space. And the tighter the schedule, the more it needs to be managed. As Paul Graham points out, makers have very different schedules to managers. Managers are able to break their days into hourly slots and have meeting after meeting in order to be productive. Makers, on the other hand, require long chunks of time to wrestle with a project (and to be distracted). A single meeting can throw out their process entirely and waste half a day.

Google offices

Another fundamental truth about ideas, according to research by Mark Beeman and John Kounios, is that we have an innate ability to sense when we have stumbled on a great idea. They call it a ‘feeling of knowing’. Lehrer uses the example of when someone’s name is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t remember it. It’s an interesting mental paradox, because we know we know the answer but we also don’t know it. (And interestingly, the way we remember the name is by not thinking about it.) Beeman and Kounios’ studies have shown that with an 85% degree of accuracy, people ‘just know’ when they are able to solve or have solved a problem.

Google offices

This innate sense is particularly important in advertising because we need to know whether an idea will work or not before we even make it. This is not brain surgery, it’s simply an ability to know how to frame a message and tell a great story. The challenge comes in convincing other people that the idea is right. And often the more creative the idea, the more difficult it is to sell. Imagine, for example, if I said to that a great way to sell chocolate was to show a Gorilla drumming passionately to Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight. I’m not quite sure how they did manage to sell it, but they must have known something because it was immensely successful.

Google offices

Photo: Google offices

But here’s the other thing about the creative process. Once you have that ‘feeling of knowing’, once you’ve found an idea that you know is right, you have to work unreasonably hard to make it happen. You have to go from being distracted to being incredibly focused. Which is probably why I’m suited to a career in advertising: my mother is artist and my father was an accountant, which really is the perfect combination of focus and distraction. So I had no choice, really; I was bred for it. DM


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