Inspire everyone to be creative

Can dissecting a re-imagined MRI scanner help us develop tactics to yield more creative advertising?

In most ad agencies there is one department with creative in its name. At best the label reinforces a belief that there are people in the business who are creative and others who aren’t. At worst, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, perpetuating the fallacy that you have to be a copywriter or art director to conceive a brilliant idea. True you may need those skills to execute a beautiful piece of film or a visually stunning website, but not necessarily to think them up.

Next semester I teach Fundamentals of Creative Development in the College of Communication at Boston University.  It’s a required course for anyone pursuing a BS in Communication with a concentration in advertising. Which means the class will be filled with students destined to work not only in ad agency creative departments, but also in account service, media, planning, and even research.

Certainly one could teach this course in way that acknowledged what all those disciplines need to know about creative. But I’d rather find a way to teach it so that everyone believes he can be creative. Or at least have the courage to try. The fact is we’re all born creative. It’s just that most of us have it pummeled out of us by public school, rigid teachers, critical peers and eventually self-perception.

Pummeling it back in is probably harder. Simply telling students that they are creative isn’t enough. We need tools and tactics and exercises to get them started. So I’ve been spending a fair amount of time researching what others do, glancing at everything from Hyper Island, Before and After, and Idea Management Lab to the numerous books that offer tips and suggestions. If you’re interested, here are a few sources worth checking out.

  • Insanely Simple, The Obsession That Drives Apples’ Success, by Ken Segall
  • Creative Workshop, by David Sherman
  • The Creative Process Illustrated, by W. Glenn Griffin and Deb K Morrison
  • The Idea Agent, by Jonas Michanek and Andreas Breiler
  • Visual Literacy, by Richard and Judith Wilde

While I’ll have to teach the fundamentals – strategy, concept, execution, production – I’m not interested exclusively in making ads, but also in how to inspire people to think creatively across all the new disciplines.

Which is why I found myself gravitating to this recent TED talk by IDEO founder David Kelly. (Thank you Kazi Ahmed for sending it to me.) As you’d expect, Kelly believes that we are all creative if we just learn to overcome our fears and then master the right problem-solving process.

In his talk he shares two stories. The first is about Albert Bandura, a highly cited psychologist who developed the social cognitive theory known as self-efficacy. If people have high self-efficacy they see challenges as tasks to be mastered, not avoided. He used the technique to help patients overcome phobias. Kelly relates the story of Bandura enabling people with ophiophobia to overcome their fear of snakes, encouraging them to take small baby steps, one at a time, until they were comfortable actually handling snakes. Kelly suggests that with a similar approach to creativity and design thinking that anyone, even those who’d never anoint themselves with the creative label, can gain the confidence to think of themselves as creative.

As evidence he shares another tale. This one is about Doug Dietz, a GE designer of MRI machines. After 20 years as an engineer, Dietz was stunned to witness how frightened children were of his huge, noisy, vibrating scanners. (Why he should be surprised is another matter.) So much so that 80 percent of children needed sedation to calm them enough to endure the procedure.

Dietz was at Stanford’s D-School at the time and learned their design thinking process, which inspired and enabled him to change the entire MRI experience that kids went through. He turned the negative into a positive. The noise, the shaking, the claustrophobia all became positives as Dietz re-imagined the MRI as an adventure. The MRI became Pirate Island, complete with a re-painted exterior, a reason for the noise and vibrations, a place to hide from pirates, and a new story to describe the entire process.

I’m not sure you even need to follow the D-School approach if you learn to dissect good ideas. For example, you can look at the modified MRI and steal the following tactics and approaches for any good idea.

What are the negatives?

How can we turn them into positives?

What if we assembled a team from different backgrounds – a clown, a playground designer, a children’s book author — to solve the problem? (see other posts on creating collisions.)

All that represents is learning to look at a problem, product or experience from very different perspectives. Learn to look at bread from the perspective of a toaster. Represent the safety of Volvo with something other than crash dummies.

I too believe that everyone can be creative. Especially in an industry like advertising where ideas are no longer based on art and copy but include apps, experiences, digital events, gaming dynamics and clever ways to inspire participation.  So I’m thinking I’ll focus on two things beyond the fundamentals needed to create standout advertising. The courage to believe one is creative. And tricks, tactics and tools to help get you there.

If you have any good ones, please share.  Thanks for stopping by.



I'll also suggest Tom Monahan's book, The do-it-yourself lobotomy. It's chock full of engaging ways to get people caught up in the act of creativity.


At our agency we introduced the 360' worksheet as a way to get everyone thinking beyond the traditional. The worksheet is like a story board for multimedia. The core idea is sketched or written in the center and then the cross functional teams are forced to imagine different ways to express the idea through various mediums -- be it ink on paper or a new game, app or some clever location based service. This draws in people from different backgrounds and skill sets and the process itself forces the recognition that it's not just about art and copy people any longer -- everyone can and should feel empowered to come up with ideas and imagine them coming to life in different strategic ways.


Ben Kunz. So true. CMO's care deeply about media channels. Somehow creative departments still think creative is all that matters. Media, budget, ROI well we engage with consumers....those are the biggest questions from CMOs.


What I find interesting is that within ad agencies, 99% of the conversation about what they do is focused on "the creative idea," and yet outside of ad agencies, 99% of what people talk about in communications is the change in media channels. Go on Twitter and try to find 20 tweets about an advertising creative idea that rocks in the next 5 minutes; good luck (Super Bowl week doesn't count). Go on Twitter next and try to find 20 tweets about what Apple is doing with its next hardware gizmo, and you'll go "check" in a few seconds. People are obsessed with media channels and tools; agencies keep talking about ideas. Therein is a disconnect. The intersection of media channel and creative idea is rarely explained, although a few smart shops such as BBH Labs have discussed ending the top-down creative to media funnel and building a more integrated planning whole.


Or put another way, good creative is now a commodity.


The reason I suggest this is in a world where people watch 5 hours of TV a day seeing 166 :30 second spots, or spend 3 hours on the Internet a day being exposed to thousands of banner ad and video pre-roll impressions, 99% of creative ideas are ignored. Completely. Creative is really now a pass-fail grade -- you get noticed, or more likely, you don't, and even if your idea is in the 10% of brilliant executions, you're still competing with 16 other TV spots and a few hundred other banner ads.


Go ahead, build a brilliant idea. You'll be one of 50 or so I'm exposed to tomorrow.


This is not a negative; advertising is as always a game of what we catch, not what we spill. You could argue as well that good ideas and creative a more important than ever before in a world agog in communications overload. But this commoditization of idea brilliance is a real problem, and you can see it yourself if you measure the downcycle timeline of any big "idea" that goes viral. Most newfound memes spike but for a few days and then disappear. See ya, Skittles homepage.


What I'd love to see, if I were a student in your class, is how the construct of media channel and the pinnacle of brilliant creative inform each other, instead of the "idea" itself being something separate. This combination is the only path I see to truly breaking out and building something with sustained power and resonance.


Love to hear your thoughts.


This is good food for thought Edward. And I also like Howie's "ideas that present solutions" line. That line fits neatly alongside one that I bring up in my Digital Brand Strategy class at the University of Oregon - what problem are we trying to solve? - or, what problem does this app, ad, digital product, "thing" solve? And also to Howie's point, I'm surprised that my class doesn't allow students from the Business school to attend. After all, as David Foster Wallace said "you're not here at this liberal arts school to learn from us, you're here to learn how to think.."

Good luck with the course Edward.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I like to call creativity - ideas that present solutions. This broadens it out side of the 'creation of media' realm and into everything. And it needs to be fostered in all organizations so that even the janitorial staff will offer solutions where needed for improving everything from how an organization runs, increase profits, lowers costs, improves products, creates new products, provides what the customer needs. And I agree most people are shy about offering their creativity when not in a role they deem 'creative'. Funny though that everyone day dreams and fantasizes right?


Curious @edwardboches does Advertising in most Universities exist in the communication school vs business school? It is kind of cross disciplinary - business, art, social sciences, and communication.


You're so right. The big question is getting the culture right. I loved your post last Christmas, for example, on how the Mullen Christmas card came about. Serendipity, but the right culture can make that kind of frictionless collaboration more likely. Equally I think a degree of empowerment is needed. As you rightly say naming conventions have a lot to do with this - the word 'creative' seems to happily travel around as a noun, verb and adjective within an agency, but rarely refers to much beyond the boundaries of a certain department. If bluechip CEOs are demanding creativity - and IBM surveys often indicate that's the case, then it's time creativity was the label (and expectation!) we made on everybody, not just the preserve of the few. How do we do that? Looking forward to finding out! Amd to reading more here. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts - always instructive. Btw, wrote about the model of the many vs the model of the few a while back.


Fantastic stuff, Edward, and good luck with the course. This aspect of what we do and how agencies organise themselves has fascinated me for a while. Hate doing this but rather than leave a long comment (like last time!) I'll link to a recent post. Kind of captures what I've been thinking about most recently. Because sometimes even the most self-efficacious (?) of us still need help. Would love to hear your thoughts.