DeCourcy: Game-changing creativity requires a leap in the dark

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Unpredictable, risky, raw -- this is what creativity at its best looks like.

What if Phil Knight decided that "Just do it" wasn’t ownable enough?

What if Linda Boff had insisted that The Message podcast’s storyline communicate more of the unique features of General Electric jet engines?

What if State Street and McCann sensibly concluded that marketing a new exchange-traded fund product should involve behavioral targeting and a multiplatform, 360-degree movement and not ... a sculpture?

What if Reed Hastings had come down on the side of cold, hard reality and judged that producing premium content is simply too expensive in the short term?

What if Steve Jobs and Chiat/Day listened to the naysaying Apple board in 1984 and sold that Super Bowl ad space? What if Steve Jobs listened to the naysayers who thought "Think different" sounded funny? What if Steve Jobs listened to any naysayers, about anything?

While they loved the idea of a founding-father-focused musical, what if the backers of Hamilton went with the research that showed Broadway audiences show up to see, like, Broadway music?

What if Red Bull determined that a live broadcast of a man falling from the edge of space at Mach 1.25 was, you know, kinda pushing it a bit? 

What if the Old Spice team had obeyed the golden creative rule that you should never let your client’s product copy be the copy of the ad?

What if the brain trust at Lego concluded, reasonably, that they’d never made a theatrical feature film before, so it’s probably something they had no business doing? "We’re in the toy business, not the movie business, amiright?" 

What if creativity could be predicted, mapped, risk-assessed, cluster-analysed, MECEd, attribution-modelled, managed and consulted? 

Unlike advertising, creativity—unwieldy, weird, beautiful, game-changing creativity—can’t be. Powerful creative ideas that change hearts and businesses require a leap. They require a leap in the minds of their makers, who make connections that no-one else thought to make—and, crucially, they require a leap from the marketers who back them. Not blind, not reckless, not uninformed, but a leap nonetheless—a willingness to recognize that creative breakthroughs often seem improbable, until they become inevitable. 

Making things that real people want is hard (and getting harder). It’s harder still to give the world what it wants before it knows it wants it. "What do you want?"—asked on behalf of ourselves and on behalf of consumers audiences people—is the central question of our business, at least the business of Wieden+Kennedy. And, sometimes, when everything’s right, something or someone can come along with a thing so simple that taps into the bottomless reservoir of want in humanity, and then the world goes fucking crazy. We love that feeling. We believe in that feeling. It’s lightning in a bottle. 

In our quest as an industry to answer that big question, we sometimes spend too much time focusing on inputs and outputs. You can do coverage, you can achieve a channel-first, you can be social, you can do programmatic, you can make sure your message is everywhere ... but real creativity at scale? You have to take leaps for that. Disruptive thinking, scaled, is lightning in a bottle. Despite all the differences of opinion about Fearless Girl, that was lightning in a bottle. 

To the nostalgia merchants, this doesn’t mean that data, tech and tools have no part in this (we should at last retire the Manichaean red herring that sets data and creativity against each other). It means these things are almost never solutions. Creativity solves problems. We agitate and break through and create human meaning and connection with creativity.

Wieden+Kennedy is marking its 35th anniversary this year and, as part of the retrospecting that attends that sort of occasion, I was asked about Nike "Revolution" and its legacy. For me, it came down to this: it proved that pushing ourselves towards ideas that feel uncomfortable is where you find gold. People remember that ad because it was shocking. It didn’t feel "good." It didn’t feel like advertising. It looked like shit. It was electric. Like a car crash—people couldn’t look away. Its lesson, to the extent that the wisdom earned from these things is portable: never go for perfect and polished when you can break the mould. Fulfil the want that no one knew they had. 

We don’t have enough of that. It’s a good time—this particular, challenging period in our industry, and in our world—to remind ourselves of the power of raw creativity and what it takes for creative companies to conjure and harness it. Best-in-class, relationship-driven, integrated, digital-innovation-operations-technology-process companies can’t do that. Companies devoted to creativity can. Agitation, meaning, the unexpected—these are the things that can truly ignite a culture. And isn’t that what we all want?

—Colleen DeCourcy is the global chief creative officer at Wieden+Kennedy.
@decourcy