One spark a fire does not make.


Have we got the wrong idea about ideas?

Marketing and creative agencies talk a lot about ideas. Now, I know saying that is a bit like pointing out that Donald Trump occasionally mentions immigration in the course of his day-to-day, but beyond stating the simple fact of it, the way that ‘creativity’ is framed in our industry is actually a bit problematic. I think that there’s a common notion of creativity (particularly within marketing) that has become skewed away from the actual reality of it. The associated rhetoric – the strained pseudo-philosophic copy of homepages and ‘Our Process’ tabs – has tied into an uncomfortable but powerful narrative (complete with a whole set of terminology and language), that is both easily understood and easily commercialised. Thing is, it’s virtually never accurate.

You’ll be familiar with the sort of language I’m talking about. More often than not, ideas are described with fleeting-moment phrases: ‘a spark of inspiration’, ‘a moment of genius’ etc. These are essentially marketing clichés – or at the very least incarnations of clichés – used to sell the idea of creativity to clients. Agencies have been finding ever more inventive (and occasionally groan-worthy) ways to describe the creative process for years (the ‘ignition process’!), but for all the variation, the core narrative in terms of what an idea is, is generally based around some sort of Eureka moment: a lightening strike; an instant revelation; a sudden, cloud-parting epiphany.

And it makes a lot of sense. After all, even though creativity is valuable in virtually every occupation known to man, articulating that value is still absurdly hard. Somewhere along the line, that narrative of the idea ‘moment’ must have taken root, providing a really neat and accessible way to commercialise a process that creative agencies really need to commercialise. When you think about it, it’s actually a pretty textbook example of effective problem solving self-marketing.

But here’s my beef – it never quite seems to ring true. I can only speak for myself, but when I have an idea it doesn’t come out fully formed. It’s not a clean birth. It comes out covered in slime and needs someone nearby to put down their sandwich and give it a vigorous rub. And then it probably needs to be carefully put in the incubator for a variable amount of time. Every idea has that ‘moment’ of conception (or am I mixing metaphors?) but – as surely everyone who works in a creative agency would truthfully testify – it’s invariably the least important part of the creative process.

It’s the things that come later that will determine the strength or otherwise of an idea – which at this stage, is all it is. It’s the nurture that deserves the credit; the process that takes something that hadn’t previously existed outside of an individual’s head and helps it grow and evolve into actual, tangible stuff. That ‘stuff’ could be many things – a strategy, a campaign, a visual, a brand or anything else – but it marks the point where an idea is strong enough to start working for itself. That doesn’t happen without a whole lot of time and thought (and often whole lot of people prepared to provide it).

So, you can probably see why the ‘moment of genius’ narrative is more popular. It’s certainly more glamorous, more sellable and doesn’t require analogies that involve post-natal slime. But, fundamentally, it’s still misleading. And that is surely a problem. At some point in the past maybe it might have been less so – whereby the thinking was that so long as the client gets what they need in the end then it doesn’t matter. But really, in a time of ever more sophisticated ideas, measurement and return of investment, when is tacit misunderstanding ever going to pay off? Short term gain maybe – but a much higher potential for long-term pain.

I think – and there are plenty of industry peers saying similar things – that the client needs to be ‘let in’ a little more. Not necessarily to the point whereby they take a lead on the work they are paying you for, but so they can see – transparently – how an idea or concept needs to be constantly worked and carefully developed in order for it to come good. It’s a level of honesty that requires a few deep breaths and a willingness to sacrifice mystique, but as a genuine aspiration it might just foster a more effective and productive type of client/agency relationship. Might also mean that the some of the more questionable (read: bullshit) ‘idea’ philosophies of today get screwed up and lobbed into the great waste paper basket in the sky.