Psychologists talk about creativity having four ‘Ps’: person, process, product and press (environment). So how do the world’s creative leaders think about these different aspects of creativity, and how do they fold them into their day-to-day work?
Today at the Little Black Book & Friends Beach, Leo Burnett global chief creative officer Chaka Sobhani, Wunderman Thompson global chief creative officer Daniel Bonner, VMLY&R global chief creative officer Debbi Vandeven, Impact BBDO regional executive creative director for the Middle East and Pakistan Ali Rez and MullenLowe Group president of the global creative council Jose Miguel Sokoloff joined up with LBB’s Laura Swinton for a raucous ramble around the four Ps, sharing plenty of inspiration.
Here’s a sample of the wisdom and “violent agreement” they shared.
Kicking off, things got personal as the panellists shared their personality quirks that have drawn them to creativity as well as the challenges and difficulties they faced. Debbi modestly called creativity “the only thing I was good at. Aesthetics meant a lot to me and I stuck with it.”
Daniel has the same story. He liked drawing, and eventually realised he could get paid for it. “I think I’m quite good at sticking things out. You’re going to be told no in your career way more than yes, so you have to be robust for that. Being hardworking or a glutton for punishment will serve you well.”
Ali began when he “mostly made tea for people” at an ad agency. Loved it and stuck it out.
It was TV that led Chaka to her creative leadership career. “I didn't know it was called creativity. But - I'm gonna make a very grand statement now - I think that was the only way to survive. Storytelling was the only way I could know that there was a space somewhere in the world where there were people like me, growing up as a little brown girl in Devon (in the countryside in England). It always gave me hope.”
She continued: “It always gave me hope. And again, without getting too Oprah, at this time on Wednesday, for me the greatest gift in the world is to create something that makes people on the outside connect to the inside and not feel so alone. So ultimately, it's about sharing pain and finding ways to get over that and feel a little bit more loved up and together. That was a bit smooshy, apologies."
For Jose Miguel, he attributes his entry into creativity to an “absolute lack of talent at anything. But I had an imagination and I held onto that.”
In the face of challenges, each panellist shared thoughts that have helped them through. Ali, Chaka and Debbi all spoke about the importance of resilience in the face of rejection. “You just have to tell yourself that you’ll come back from it,” said Ali. “It will always ultimately be OK. But it’s painful putting your babies out there,” said Chaka. “You get beat down,” said Debbi. But then “that one time when something is amazing just makes us do it over and over.”
Jose Miguel shared that he finds the hardest part of creativity to be “the impending doom of being wrong.” He thinks he’s got where he is by getting around 51% of decisions right, but still finds it devastating when he gets it wrong.
Daniel found that his most helpful realisation is that “asking more questions isn’t a weakness. The more curious [you are] and the more stupid questions you ask, is a sign of potentially finding the answer that no one else can get to.”
There’s nothing inherently special that makes a creative person, the panel of undeniable creative stars agreed. Daniel shared the odd phenomenon of people starting their sentences with “I’m not a creative but…” and then proceeding to say something ingenious.
Debbi agreed that she hears this phrase all the time too. She joked that she sometimes follows it with “…But you’re gonna tell me how to do this anyway.”
We’re all born with creativity, said Ali. “A lot of people tend to suppress themselves,” he considered. The courage to share ideas is the one difference that unlocks that creativity.
Chaka finds it “very strange” that creatives are lauded above others. Clients are all creative because they’re putting out products or services that solve a problem for people. “My gran’s creative. She doesn’t come out of a film and doesn't have a view!”
It’s not the creativity that anyone struggles with in itself, ventured Jose Miguel. It’s the other things we’re not good with that hold us back from unlocking that.
Ali added that defining creativity can be broadened too. Noticing an insight can be defined as creativity, or even making an observation. “If you see something differently than everyone else, that’s creativity.”
Next up was an exploration of the creative process as the panellists discussed their idiosyncratic habits and their thoughts about the best ways to start a creative project and overcome mental blocks.
“I wait till the last moment,” laughed Ali, while Debbi gave a shout out to the VMLY&R strategy department, adding “from there the process is a lot more open.”
Daniel had a thoughtful answer: “I would say that there's a remarkable lack of uniformity in how projects and solutions start inside the agency. Some of them start at 300 miles an hour. Some of them are like a slow burn and you're going to have a walking pace. Some of them are proactive, ideas looking for solutions, there's a more free-spirited way of thinking about things. We have people thinking about clients' businesses all the time, and they come up with an idea that hasn't been asked for yet. That's a completely different process to the one where the pitch brief arrives and then everyone does their thing. So you'd be surprised how different each individual task actually is.”
Chaka suggested it’s often down to personality types how a creative works. “I’m a bit of a ponderer,” she said.
To Jose Miguel, the key is understanding what it is that the client needs. “Once I feel I understand it we can go from there. What happens after that, I have no idea.” But he built on a point that kept emerging about seeking answers: “Ask for help. Not knowing how to solve a problem is already on the way to solving it.”
Considering what to do when things get stuck creatively, simplicity is always something that Chaka and her team strive for. “When you have to find a way to over-intellectualise how you're getting into something, something's not right. It should always feel like you're taking what's complex and simplifying it.” She added that the process of repeatedly saying “I don’t get it” eventually leads to the right insight.
Ali noted that it “depends on where you’re stuck in the process.” Sometimes it’s best to go away and come back to it, or maybe you need more information. “Go back to the client and ask questions. Be honest about it.”
Ultimately, Daniel reminded us that most of the time life moves on. “The best thing about this industry is that there will always be another idea along,” he says. “Creativity is endless, infinite. We will not go into that meeting with a blank PowerPoint. So you’ve got to trust the process. It’s an overused phrase, but by having people around you, eventually you’ll be nudged somewhere.”
Debbi had reassuring advice for getting through creative block. “Get away from it for a little bit. When you’re not thinking about it is usually when ideas pop into your head.”
Creativity is as much a product of the environment as it is of individual genius, and place and context can have a huge impact. Panellists shared where they have their best ideas and also chatted about their thoughts about the sorts of environments that help creative teams, and, inevitably the impact of remote, hybrid and office working.
“I like a lot of chaos in work,” shared Debbi, perhaps fulfilling a stereotype of someone with an art director background. “If there’s a lot going on, I love it, when there’s a ton of influence from places.”
For Jose Miguel, the food for creativity is conversation. “That’s where my brain starts working. Then I can take that back to a silent place.”
Ali said that for Impact BBDO, a key is “to create a safe place for ideas. If you can create an environment where everybody feels good about saying whatever stupid thought comes to their mind, if you can very easily show work, ask the questions and try new things, that's the best environment to create in.”
Chaka addressed the physical workplace where creativity happens: “Your agency space and place [is important]. I’m a fan of open plans and high ceilings so you feel you can breathe.” She went on to comment on hybrid work, concluding that being in the same room is best for creativity. “I do think we’re better together.”
She also insists that stimuli for creativity shouldn’t just be digital. While Chaka admits she gets lost on TikTok, there’s no substitute for physical stimulus. And definitely not working late every night and never leaving an advertising agency. “I think we’re best when we’re living full lives.”
Daniel agreed. “I think that chaos is important,” he said. “You have to be able to move in and out of that environment and not feel rigid. I think that rigidity is not good for the work.”
At the end of it all, what we hope will emerge is some sort of creative product. But how do we assess whether the work actually is creative after all? And what does it take to protect creativity?
“This is where experience comes in,” suggested Daniel. “You just know when you’ve spent enough time.” Some ideas are, as he put it, “fucking mad and we shouldn’t do it,” but also “you don’t want to squish out of [the creatives] that imagination. So I can't say there's a formula for it. I can only say that the more hours you spend doing anything in life generally, you tend to get a little bit better.”
Even mad ideas that might make a client uneasy don’t scare a great creative, suggested Chaka. “I don’t think creative people spend much time feeling scared. I think you get excited.”
“I remember working on a beauty serum once,” she recalled, “and an amazing team coming in with an idea. I've never cried so much with laughter. It was to use the serum on Mick Jagger's balls because if it worked on Mick Jagger's balls, it would work on the face of a woman. And honestly, I couldn't speak for about 15 minutes.
“If I'd said yes to that they'd have fired us. But the team who did that had now fear about it whatsoever. Mick Jagger might have been a bit worried. But they weren't frightened of it.
I think our job of looking at work and hopefully trying to shape and guide it, your constant question is: is it right for the brand? And will it land in the world in a way that people will react to?”
Debbi isn’t scared of ‘risky’ ideas either. “Bad is work that doesn’t stand out. It can still be on brief but not standing out. There’s a lot of ‘put my message everywhere’. Taking the risk is what we need people to do more of if we want to be noticed.”
Working in the Middle East and doing work that is trying to push for social change, Ali notes carries a “different kind of risk.” But he’s noticed that “that actually drives creatives.” The fear is of being noticed for consistently doing mediocre work, he said. “When you’re forced to do mediocre work, at times, you want to balance it out with the good stuff. So the fear is not having enough opportunities.”
Speaking of social change prompted discussion of Jose Miguel’s famous work demobilising the FARC Guerillas in Colombia and the risk that held. “We had a discussion at the beginning of the process[…] They might bomb the hell out of the agency.” But the team at the agency felt it was more of a risk not to do that work, he remembers. “We were excited about that work. We were excited about doing it. And we didn't see the risks.”
What about the state of creativity in 2023? Daniel was chipper: “What’s not to like!? How could you not be optimistic?”
Meanwhile Ali, this year’s Print & Publishing jury president was effusive about the “terrific work.” In fact, the jury said they decided not to award the same work twice because there was so much to celebrate and they wanted to spread the praise, he revealed. He also noted that the line between product and purpose work “is getting thinner and thinner.”
Jose Miguel loves the direct shot of inspiration Cannes Lions gives him. “Every time I come here I always leave with an enormous amount of jealousy for work I wished I had done. Sometimes we do better so I feel less jealous, sometimes more.”
Debbi noted some trends from the work that’s prominent this week: “It's a mix between purpose and, and product and service. I think over the last few years, there's been a lot of purpose. And if you're going to do purpose work, just make sure it's really truly authentic to that brand. There's a out there where you’re questioning whether it did anything for that brand. So I want to be sure that when I see work that it makes sense for them.
“And then I want to see more product and service advertising work in any form, any medium win. It's what we do day to day, every day. So I would love to have more of that work being celebrated.”
“I'm very fucking excited, actually,” said Chaka. “I think sometimes we can be our own worst enemy in this industry. I've not been in the industry my whole career - I came into it only about 10 years ago. And I was quite amazed by how much self-bashing there was. And then you see the work that comes out and you think. Creative people are never content. We're constantly, constantly, constantly striving, like with sports players, they can achieve something but the next season they're straight back in it.”
Her experience having just been president of the Cannes Lions Direct jury she was astounded by the range of work and its quality. “Aw man, it was bouncing!”