The Science of Creativity and PR Firm Success

Public interest in creativity continues to surge. A study of CEOs released in May cited creativity as the “most crucial factor for future success,” while a Newsweek article on the “crisis of creativity” this past summer raised alarm bells with its finding that measured creativity scores among Americans are plummeting. What are the latest findings about creativity and what can businesses do to enhance it?

Scientists are working hard to nail down what creativity is from a neuroscientific standpoint, charting the parts of the brain involved in creative thinking processes. But they’re also attempting to look for connections between creativity, personality traits and behaviors. One recent study has suggested that imagining yourself as a child can enhance creativity.  Another has linked sadness to creativity.  And another,  research suggesting that creative people have more sex.

So what can business do to amp up the creative juices? Pump money into wellness programs. Enhance empathy in the workplace. Let employees take ninety-minute naps. Foster competition among work groups. Switch up the people on your teams. And encourage your people to avoid information overload.

Some possibilities suggested by the research are counter-intuitive. According to one study, distractible people tended to perform better at creative tasks.  So should we hire more people with ADD tendencies? Research also found that certain kinds of workers become more creative when confronted by displays of anger from bosses. So should we encourage bosses to let it fly more often or in certain situations?

It’s also important to remember that research is ongoing, so some of the current findings might not yield clear conclusions. One study found that “happy extroverts” tended to be more creative.  How does that square with the study linking sadness with creativity? And faced with a choice between a new hire who is a happy extrovert and another who seems more prone to sadness, whom should we hire?

One thing is clear: Firms need to be far bolder and more aggressive about upgrading and enhancing their creative processes. At the Council’s recent Critical Issues Forum, a panel of CMOs and corporate communications officers from AT&T, IKEA, Heineken, American Express and Monster Worldwide all agreed that they are always seeking creative ideas for their brands, and they are open to hearing it from any and all of their agency partners. Following the panel, new business guru Robb High encouraged public relations firms to be less timid about proposing big creative ideas to their clients. I’ll add: do it with flair.

Creativity entrepreneur Will Burns, founder of the ideation firm Ideasicle, notes that Fortune 500 clients have never been smarter and more educated. “They’re seeing all the cool things that other brands are doing and wondering why they’re not getting these ideas.” To thrive in today’s creativity-driven marketplace, PR firms need to step up their in-house creative processes and find new ways to deliver innovative thinking to clients at the speed of light. Remember those days when we spent two to three weeks concepting a campaign? We don’t have that kind of time anymore. Any way you slice it, the same-old approach to nurturing and structuring our creative workplaces isn’t enough in today’s environment.

7 Responses to “The Science of Creativity and PR Firm Success”

  1. Don Bates said on November 18, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Nice overview but I’d like to offer a brilliant counterpoint to what is suggested here.

    It was written by Ted Levitt, an editor of Harvard Business Review, in a 1963 HBR article entitled “Creativity is Not Enough,” one of the top two or three reprint best sellers in the publication’s history.

    In the article, to borrow from an HBR promo, “Levitt takes dead aim at the assumption that creativity is superior to conformity. He argues that creativity as it’s commonly defined—the ability to come up with brilliantly novel ideas—can actually be destructive to businesses. By failing to take into account practical matters of implementation, big thinkers can inspire organizational cultures dedicated to abstract chatter rather than purposeful action. In such cultures, innovation never happens—because people are always talking about it but never doing it.

    “Often, the worst thing a company can do, in Levitt’s view, is put innovation into the hands of “creative types”—those compulsive idea generators whose distaste for the mundane realities of organizational life renders them incapable of executing any real project. Organizations, by their very nature, are designed to promote order and routine; they are inhospitable environments for innovation. Those who don’t understand organizational realities are doomed to see their ideas go unrealized. Only the organizational insider—the apparent conformist—has the practical intelligence to overcome bureaucratic impediments and bring a good idea to a fruitful conclusion.”

    Read Levitt’s article to get a dose of reality that is as applicable today as it was almost 50 years ago.

  2. Will Burns said on November 18, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I’d like to respectfully counter the response by Don Bates above with the following: I’m not surprised Levitt’s article was written in 1963. It’s an antiquated view, written in a time when conformity was rewarded and employee loyalty to their employer was in vogue. The conventional was conventional and proudly so.

    Today, nothing could be further from true.

    Convention is the enemy of progress today. And fresh thinking (ideas) has never been more important or more valuable to a company’s success. The economy is only rewarding the most brilliant, not the most mundane. And to depend on those on the inside 100% for innovation is simply too limiting. Creativity is defined by some as the connecting of two seemingly disparate notions, thereby introducing a new notion altogether. You can’t do that with all the same old notions floating around. You need outside perspective, fresh thinking and, pray tell, creative people who think that way, to move brands forward these days.

    It’s time for a whopping dose of “distaste for the mundane,” I think. I look forward to your response.

    With great respect for you and this debate,
    Will Burns
    Founder and President, Ideasicle

  3. Kathy Cripps said on November 19, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Thanks to Don and Will for the point – counterpoint.

  4. Barry Reicherter said on November 19, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Here here, Will. Good response. Leaches were widely accepted treatments for medical conditions but it’s doubtful we’ll return to them. Don’s comments come across like a defensive PR veteran who’s been beaten up a few too many times in a conference room by Don Draper.

    PR has been presented with the best possible environment to play more of a leadership role in the marketing spectrum. Anarchy in the form of social media (i.e., that one-way top down doesn’t completely dominate any longer) has created a paradigm shift that PR folks are most equipped to deal with. But for the most part this profession hasn’t seized the day.

    To play a larger role PR folks need to embrace what was the best elements from the advertising (the previous and maybe current lion’s share of marketing dollars) — the creative process. It may sound counter intuitive but creative has a process. All those things we can do to spark creativity that Kathy wrote about are worthy additions to consider, but PR folks would do well by adopting the mantra of the creative process when it comes time to put pencil to paper, or finger to iPad.

    Best hires PR firms can make today… steal creative directors and account planners from ad agencies and embed them in your practice/account teams.

  5. Don Bates said on December 21, 2010 at 3:28 am

    I’m not defensive at all Barry. That’s why I give other sides to arguments. One-sided arguments are always myopic. I’m simply presenting what Prof. Levitt said. I’m one of the most creative minds around, no kidding (you can test me next time we meet), but I must say that an awful lot of client money is lost on ideas that never come to fruition because, as the good professor suggested, the ideas weren’t throught through as to cost, resources, implications, results, etc. And I’m not talking about ad or blog designs. That’s easy. Art schools are filled with graphic artists. You can hire them on any street corner. I’m talking about the kind of creativity the best PR aims and is known for when it succeeds — thoughtful, results-oriented events, product launches, crisis strategies, election campaigns. But please read the Levitt article. If we’re going to express opinions, we should make sure they’re somewhat informed. Ouch. I hope my kids are reading this. P.S. Leaches made a comeback in the 1980s with the advent of microsurgery such as plastic and reconstructive surgeries — a very creative use of “old” technology.

    I’ll conclude with a comment from ad giant David Ogilvy, someone I doubt anyone would call uncreative. Speaking at age 80 on “The Creativity Mandate” in his closing remarks at the 82nd annual meeting of the Association of National Advertisers, October 1991, he said:

    “I am supposed to be the No. 1 creative genius in the whole world, and I don’t even know what the hell the word ‘creativity’ means. But I’m not afraid to tell creative phonies that their commercials are utter nonsense. When I write an ad, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so persuasive that you buy the product — or buy it more often. If you spend your advertising budget entertaining the consumer, you’re a bloody fool. Housewives don’t buy a new detergent because the manufacturer told a joke on television last night. They buy the new detergent because it promises a benefit.”

    Maybe we’re crabbing about semantics but as W.B. Yeats reminded us:

    “Words are always getting conventionalized to some secondary meaning. It is one of the works of poetry to take the truants in custody and bring them back to their right senses. Poets are the policemen of language, they are always arresting those old reprobates the words.” PR professionals should be equally diligent.

  6. Sharron Clemons said on December 21, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    Here here, Will. Good response. Leaches were widely accepted treatments for medical conditions but it’s doubtful we’ll return to them. Don’s comments come across like a defensive PR veteran who’s been beaten up a few too many times in a conference room by Don Draper. PR has been presented with the best possible environment to play more of a leadership role in the marketing spectrum. Anarchy in the form of social media (i.e., that one-way top down doesn’t completely dominate any longer) has created a paradigm shift that PR folks are most equipped to deal with. But for the most part this profession hasn’t seized the day. To play a larger role PR folks need to embrace what was the best elements from the advertising (the previous and maybe current lion’s share of marketing dollars) — the creative process. It may sound counter intuitive but creative has a process. All those things we can do to spark creativity that Kathy wrote about are worthy additions to consider, but PR folks would do well by adopting the mantra of the creative process when it comes time to put pencil to paper, or finger to iPad. Best hires PR firms can make today… steal creative directors and account planners from ad agencies and embed them in your practice/account teams.

  7. Don Bates said on January 27, 2011 at 3:34 am

    Oops, I apologize. It’s leech, not leach. Leach is a family I knew in Boston when I was a kid. They would never leech on anyone.

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