The Creativity Conundrum

If you work in a marketing agency, you've heard ad naseum that creative is king. The bigger question is: How do you foster a creative environment?
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For most of us who work in marketing, we consider ourselves to work in a "creative" industry. That is: we're charged with coming up with creative solutions to marketing problems and, usually, the ones with the best creative ideas win. If you work in an agency, you've probably heard, ad naseum (Latin for: until it makes you sick) that creative is king.

The bigger question for me is: where does this creativity come from? Or maybe a better question is: how do you foster a creative environment?

A number of recent articles make some interesting points and seriously call into question the practices of so-called "creative workplaces."

The first article by Timothy Williamson of Oxford University, talks about imagination. He posits that rather than fictional flights of fancy, early humans developed imaginative skills built on real experiences. It was the evaluation of alternative "realities" that gave imagination its evolutionary power. Imagining different ways a saber-toothed tiger might eat you increased your chances of survival.

Imagination is the critical ingredient for creativity. But you have to have lots of real-life experience to have a really good one.

In a similar vein, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide penned an article that shot down one of Malcolm Gladwell's a-ha points of outliers. He jumped on the idea that practicing something singularly for 10,000 hours will increase your chances of becoming a superstar. Instead, a recent study of professional athletes showed that those who group up in small towns and played a variety of sports growing up were most likely to become professionals. It flew in the face of the Tiger Woods theory that focusing on one sport, intensely, was the best path to stardom. Variety of experience, and lack of success in many of those experiences, actually makes us perform better.

The same is true of study habits. In our schools today we think that immersing ourselves in specific topics and studying them intensely will increase our knowledge and test scores. Actually, studies show the exact opposite to be true. Varying the types of materials studied, or even varying the content studied, yielded better results. Here's the money quote from Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, "The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work."

Finally, once you have all of these experiences and have gathered knowledge in different ways, what do you need most? Time off, actually. In studies about our "always on society," research shows that what our brains need most is time to process all of the different inputs we receive during the day. Always on is stimulating, but it doesn't make us smarter. Here's why from Loren Fran, an assistant professor of physiology at UCSF who specializes in learning and memory: "Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it's had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories." He said he believes that when the brain was constantly stimulated, "you prevent this learning process."

So you'd think that business that specialize in creativity would:
  • Encourage people to experience many different things
  • Allow people to work on a variety of projects and clients to increase their reality-based experiences
  • Provide an array of research and creative materials, across disciplines, to make people smarter
  • Make sure people don't do the same thing all the time, every day
  • Ensure that people have enough down time, either at work or at home, to process everything

In short, companies would be in the business of developing more renaissance, or hybrid, people (See more here, in an older blog post). It's those people who should have the greatest chance of creative thinking and doing, which in turn should drive business results.


Unfortunately, today's creative workplaces are nothing like this. People toil long hours focusing on the same types of work and projects day in and day out. Companies talk the talk about interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration but they walk the walk of siloization and isolation.

And time? We're expected to work longer, and more intensely, with every passing year. It would be one thing if creative companies provided down time, or thinking time, at work, for everyone, another if they provided sabbaticals or longer vacations to do the same. But if they're doing that, I haven't heard much about them.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: Some are born creative, some achieve creativity, and some have creativity thrust upon them.

As creative business people, we should help our people achieve creativity. But we won't succeed unless we radically alter the way we've built up our business and employee practices.

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