November 25, 2012

I Need an idea now, please

In today’s media world, everyone is expected to be an ‘ideas person’. If you are not prepared to bring a number of intelligent ideas to the table, you cannot expect to work successfully in a creative job. Well, not for long anyway. Creativity and originality all stem from having unique ideas. Every successful campaign or piece of content starts with a single thought. This small thought, post-it note scribble and creative collaboration can then turn into a Big Idea.

The problem is we seem to be running out of time. Well at least that’s the illusion. Stepping away from your laptop for half an hour to let your mind wander cannot be justified as a good use of time.

The increasingly fast moving, micro-blogging, mobile-optimised environment we live in means people need answering straight away. Emails cannot be left unread, tweets need to be retweeted, breaking news stories need to be circulated, career opportunities need to be jumped on. Now, no one can wait.

In a matter of seconds, news is old news. Emails are becoming increasingly more urgent. Time is money and we cannot afford to waste either of them. This pressure means people fire off emails without having had time to craft a detailed response, tweets are being retweeted without having been properly read, and people are not proof reading or fact-checking their articles as much as they used to. Because surely it’s more important to be as timely as possible and catapult your ideas out into the world as quickly as possible. Because being hyper-relevant is more important than a spelling mistake, right?

I don’t think so.

Where, in the midst of all this constant upkeep, is the time needed to generate clever, relevant ideas?

I started to wander how people used to work, before the days of Facebook timelines, Twitter newsfeeds and RSS streams. This led me to think a lot about Linds Redding, a New Zealand-based art director who worked at BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi. My friend shared the article ‘A Short Lesson in Perspective’ with me and it was a real eye-opener into the way creative processes have changed over time. Sadly, Redding died recently at age 52 from oesophageal cancer and this was his way of giving the world one last insight into his personality and working life before he died.

His thirty years of experience in the advertising world is boiled down in this bold essay he writes. He describes how the advertising world has continued to change since the good old days in the eighties and how the power of ideas is now becoming lost to an accelerated world of constant streams and communication.

Redding shares with us stories of what the ideas process used to be like in his advertising job a few decades ago. In their company, to formulate ideas, they’d use what they called ‘The Overnight Test’.

This meant pulling together ideas, big, small, silly and pull them all onto A2 pieces of paper and stick them all over the wall. They’d then leave everything as it stood, and would go home and think no more of it. The next day as soon as they’d get into the office, they’d pull down all of the bad ideas that immediately stood out. By coming into the office newly refreshed they’d realise how differently the ideas looked in the morning after having ‘slept on it’.

Interesting enough, as time went on “The Overnight Test became the Over Lunch Test.” This hit home to me. How many companies in how many offices are now having to discuss ideas over lunch or over their computer screen, desperate to submit a ‘quick idea?’ Redding goes on to describe how the ad world became so fast moving that it went from having a full weekend to think over an idea to only having the time it would take to finish a pot noodle. Or as Redding explains it in the article: “As fast as we could pin an idea on the wall, some red-faced account manager in a bad suit would run away with it.”

Mediocre idea factories are not the way to build a successful business or process. The time is takes to churn out ten average ideas you probably could have sat down with a group and cemented one kick ass idea. It’s silly to stunt a thought prematurely by letting someone pitch it in too early.

Don’t tell someone you’ll get an idea together in a day. It’s just not long enough.

The amazing thing is, is that people who work in creative industries actually want to work harder and longer to process great ideas. There is no need for any goodwill tactics to make your employees want to work more intensely on a project, they’ll do it anyway. The excitement that comes with a great idea is motivation enough. If you work in a creative environment people work hard because they are passionate about what they do and it is a loss of pride if they are not getting good ideas out of the door. However, in order to do this there needs to be more time dedicated to thinking.

Redding’s point about reward and recognition are rather poignant. He describes how creative people are driven by their own creations, not about the financial reward at the end of it: “Truly creative people tend not to be motivated by money. That’s why so few of us have any. The riches we crave are acknowledgment and appreciation of the ideas that we have and the things that we make”. This is an amazing thing. What other industries can genuinely say that their employees are driven by the quality of their own work, ideas and execution? It’s not just a job where the same things need to be achieved day in and day out with one single benchmark of success.

I really hope we can all take a step back and realise the reality of what it takes to build a truly creative process and respect how long it can take to crack a good idea. Redding’s analogy is a perfect one:

“Have you ever tried to have an idea. Any idea at all, with a gun to your head? This is the daily reality for the creative drone.” The point he hammers home here is that ideation process cannot be rushed.

We cannot come up with earth-shattering, Cannes-award-winning multi-layered global campaign over lunch. We simply cannot. We need the time and space to craft ground-breaking ideas and make them actionable, exciting and innovative. If anything at all, perhaps we all need to bring back the ‘Over Night Test’.

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