Why I hate 'thinking outside the box'

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When we use these hollow phrases, it's often in lieu of any original thought, writes the CCO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York.

Honda's 2005 "Grrr," also known as "Hate," is one of my favorite ad campaigns of all time. It's simply brilliant, but I also love it because I can totally identify with the reasoning behind the idea. When I dislike a concept or an idea, I truly dislike it. I hate it with all my guts. 

As such, there are times within our industry where hollow phrases are often overused. From "let's divide and conquer" to "let's have a tissue session," these phrases are often spoken but never questioned. Well, if you believe in Freudian theory, then you believe the subconscious structure is shaped through, and by, language. We speak like we think, and we also think like we speak. Therefore, when we use these mantras, it's often in lieu of any real original thought. 

Of all of our overused platitudes, "think outside the box" is the one I dislike the most. The very first time I heard it, I had a visceral reaction, like the one you have to certain songs, like "Hero" from Enrique Iglesias. But when I moved to the US four years ago, I had to put more thought into my fierce reaction to this commonly used phrase. The hate I felt wasn't going away, it wasn´t fading. Unlike with Enrique's song, the more I heard it, the stronger my reaction became. Why was that?

Then, I remembered a particular situation in Argentina working with one of my former bosses, a globally recognized Argentinian creative. During a conference call with a regional client, they made the mistake of suggesting that, despite the fact we didn't have a more precise brief, we were in a great situation. We could just "smoke something and come up with a great idea," he jokingly suggested. At that moment, in one of the most memorable and bravest replies to a client I've ever witnessed, he said, "Are you stupid or just crazy? Creatives need limits. We must have limits!"

If we chose this career path, it's because we like solving problems through creativity. In my case, despite any artistic talent I may have shown as a child, my need to do something with the product of my efforts was as important as the creation itself. I'd paint something, and then try to sell it to a neighbor. I'd draw a comic strip and try to exchange it for the missing baseball card in my album. Trying to solve a problem with whatever amount of talent I have is what gives me real satisfaction. We are craftsmen with a problem to solve.

But to solve a problem, we need to know the limitations. The budget, the strategy, the timelines, the target, the media buy, the available resources. The truth. Every time we ignore those limits, a part of the equation is missing. And that means someone is not doing his or her job, either on the agency or the client side. Of course, those limits need to be logical ones. If the square is only an inch big, well, there's not much room to play. But as long as the limits are clear, realistic, and truthful, there will be always be a vast space to explore. Inside the square, we can demand to be free. We have to. You gave me this set of limits, this space to play in. We agreed on the blueprint of the playground. Now go home and let me play. There are a lot of examples outside of advertising demonstrating how clear limits, even dramatically stern ones, can trigger better creative. Even for artists who are supposed to count freedom as the cornerstone of their artistic endeavors. 

One of the most prominent examples in the last few years is the "Dogme 95." A set of rules—no soundtrack, no camera on hand, no artificial lightning, no voice over, among others—that a group of Danish filmmakers self-imposed during the 90s helped spur the last wave of truly original work in modern cinema. There are many other examples. In music, consider Morphine, a band that decided to replace a guitar player with a saxophonist, inventing with one of the most innovative rock sounds of the last decade. Or Gorillaz, who decided to eliminate a fundamental ingredient for musical success: real people playing onstage. Both bands explored self-imposed limitations to push the boundaries of what a rock band could be.

Successful case studies aren't necessary to justify the method. For me, it's a basic need. I set my own limits if I don't get them from a brief or a client. It can be as simple as not replicating a certain type of execution ever again. I insist on limits, often to a point where I risk sounding like advertising's very own brand of masochist. I do this because I truly believe that we, creatives in advertising, are like the escapists from the 19th century, modern Houdinis.

We are paid because of the grace, quickness, elegance and effectiveness with which we escape the chains and the locks under the water, and the speed with which we swim up towards the surface to breathe just before the seemingly inevitable collapse. The thing is, our act of escapism has to take place inside a box. It doesn´t have any purpose outside of it.

In a moment where the infinite landscape of possibilities seems like a paralyzing scheme, we must build our beautiful box as often as we can, embrace it, and create amazing work inside of it. So, let's please stop using that terrible phrase. We are not supposed to think outside the box. I don't even want to peek outside it. I really like it in here.

Javier Campopiano is the CCO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York.