Defining Creativity?

So, let’s go back to the beginning. What do we mean by creativity? Certainly we are not restricting a definition to the work done by ‘creatives’ in an agency. Indeed, as Al Cox, Head of Strategy at Collective says, “for us, [creativity] is the ability to conceptualise and the output could be anything; a design, a technology or a conversation”.


History and Complexity
But creativity is complicated. The Ancient Greeks believed that creativity came from a guardian spirit; an inner daemon or something similar, and Aristotle speaks of the attributed social value being of madness or ‘frenzied inspiration’. An early Western perspective was built on the voluntary Christian belief that creativity was an attribute possessed by a divine entity in whose image we had been created – but that nothing new could be made from ‘nothing’, we could only ‘mimic the ideal’ (I think it was Plato who originally said that actually). Enlightenment philosophers came to recognise that the divine attributes of artists [creators] should be attributed to the self not some divine origin. Positivist thinkers introduced measurement of creativity and since Guilford’s call for more creativity research in the 1950s, a field of research with significant girth has been generated around the subject. Creativity has been considered from a social-psychological perspective, historically, cognitively, in an organisational context and from a systems perspective, amongst many others.

It is generally agreed though, and to define what I shall talk about here, that Creativity is the combination of convergent and divergent thinking to produce a creative product of originality and value relative to context. This definition makes a lot of sense, not only in its consideration of confluence and multiple inputs (indicative of a ‘process’ rather than a single event), but also in its acknowledgement of context dependency. For example, an original idea can only be original in situ – the blank canvas does not exist. Particularly in an organisational context, creativity is bound but not only commercially; also by the individual and his environment, history, genre, rhythm, style, path dependency, budget, and whether you only have 5 minutes to do something before you have to meet your colleagues for a pint. Thus we see a creative system in which creative products are produced, contingent on individual motivation and context.

Process in Digital Agencies
So; to the creative process. Processes within and throughout agencies are often visualized as means-ends chains, invariably with more means than ends, and it is within the complexities of these ‘means’ that the creative process flows from new business generation to creative briefs, to managing expectations, designing, building, reviewing and delivering the creative product. This requires the various plugging in and out of different agency resources, in the form of time, money and individuals – and of course, there are invariably multiple projects, each with different requirements, going on simultaneously. These multiple projects contain processes (whether considered as means-ends chains, or something more complex) extending vertically and horizontally into networks of agencies, clients, and individuals.


Managing the Creative Process: Boundaries, Ownership and Expectations

This is a paper I’m writing at the moment. Was looking for any thoughts.

Specifically it looks at managing the Creative Process with regard to Boundaries, Ownership and Expectations. That is, ‘boundaries’ between individuals / disciplines / strategies / organisations / cultures, and the ‘boundary objects’ linking them; ‘ownership’ as in how vested individuals or organisations are in a particular project / brand; and expectations as in managing expectations.

Further, the paper looks at intra-agency processes, and how issues of boundaries and disparities between ‘local worlds’ (eg different divisions within the organisation; different organisations) can affect the delivery of creative services in a sort of ‘Chinese Whispers’ sense. It attempts to remove the general consideration of ‘creativity’ as a ‘black-boxed’ process, with a ‘crudely imposed supply chain logic’ (Bilton, 2006) and more generally to integrate the ideas of ‘creativity’ and ‘management’.

This general idea is then extended to include inter-agency processes, and how the complexities underpinning the delivery of creativity extend vertically and horizontally through the value chain considering, for example, managing client expectations, and managing ownership over a project both at an individual and organisational level.


Air and Light and Time and Space

A big part of my thesis focuses on the creative process, not just in advertising, but in a general sense. I have recently been speaking to some artists, architects, designers, strategists, performers and writers about their ‘processes’ – or lack thereof.

For me, an idealised view of creativity as being a blank canvas on which to just wait, incubate, and then ‘illuminate’ and unleash your inner genius is ridiculous, undesirable, and certainly unproductive in the long run. A removal of constraints leads to more random innovation that would produce results eventually, but overall does not equate to ‘creative freedom’, and would almost certainly result in reduced value overall (This is considering a systems view of creativity, defined as something like innovation PLUS value; or convergent PLUS divergent thinking, equals creativity). The rationale for this is firstly that a total release from restraints is more likely to cause paralysis from overpossibility than spontaneous genius,(Bilton, 2003) and secondly that constraints must always exist: whether self-imposed or extrinsic: it can be down to self-criticism, personal goals, rhythm, genre, path-dependency, budget, or the fact that you only have 20 minutes to do something before you have to meet someone for a cup of tea.

From a management perspective, this requires methods of control and containment that are more sophisticated, as opposed to a quasi-laissez-faire (It’s economic liberalism, NOT social liberalism) ‘hands off’ approach, in order to invent new rules to old games, as opposed to simply breaking rules or removing them entirely (Remember Morpheus’ speech? If not watch the first 20 seconds of the clip below).

Anyway, this non-interventionist view of creativity certainly seems dangerous. The isolation of creative work can lead to procrastination and exoticism in creative roles that whilst in some ways are necessary (eg in defending the cultural capital of a creative individual/organization’s ability to think different, and therefore ‘be different’; in preserving some of the mysteriousness and intrigue around creative development), ultimately leads to the ‘black-boxing’ of the ‘creative bit’ in a process that arguably should be considered holistically, and as creative throughout.

Mirroring the separation of idea generation and idea evaluation in brainstorming, management and creativity should go hand in hand, otherwise designated ‘creatives’ (as opposed to ‘non-creatives’…or ‘suits’? surely most organizations want to avoid this…) are held at arm’s length from the commercial context that frames and values their creativity. Whilst this might seem necessary in order to ‘let them get on with their job’ or ‘they only know what they need to know’ etc (eg the creative brief), it imposes a crude supply chain logic on what is essentially a highly complex, multi-activity process and actually causes the whole organizational system to become more hierarchical, not less.

Creative Function Diagram

Creative work, or any other function, can not be considered in isolation; nor can it be treated as a ‘boys club’, ‘downstairs (is where the magic happens)’, or as a black box. The creative process, and its management, must be holistic, and creative processes should always take place within a clearly defined space. More on this to come, but for the mean time, check out Chris Bilton‘s work, or just have a little read of Charles Bukowski’s poem, to which this post owes it’s name.

air and light and time and space

“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to

no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.

baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

© Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press