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October 28, 2008
Is Originality Dead or Is It Too Risky?
When was the last time you saw a movie that was based on original content – where the basic premise was not a sequel, a remake, or based on a true story?  Have we simply run out of original ideas? Has it become too difficult for a new idea to emerge, take flight, and succeed before it gets tossed aside? It is natural to assess an idea for its value, but are we becoming so complacent in our thinking that we are afraid to challenge the norm?
By our nature, humans respond to emotional stimulus. In advertising, we look for the perfect image or copy that will trigger a response. We spend so much time and expertise creating the ideal image that might illicit a desired response or generating the kind of copy that will yield the right click to action. And occasionally, we call it “art.”  But if I read one more ‘learn more’ on a banner, I might collapse from boredom.
The role an advertising agency is to challenge the creative process to solicit new ideas, assess them, and put them into production. It is our responsibility to bring those original ideas to the public.
Too often those original ideas see the cutting room floor before brainstorming sessions courtesy of budgets, conservative track records, and oddly enough, the client. Throughout my career, I have seen edgy ideas that never saw the light of day thanks to old-fashioned fear and whether a client would perceive the idea as “risky.” But isn’t that our job – to ask the difficult questions, challenge the typical, and come up with out-of-the-box solutions? As agencies, we are keenly positioned to bring the new idea. What has happened to that theory?
Early in my career, I had the opportunity to learn how people approach the creative thought process from a global innovator in the business. His underlying message was that we are never taught how to think creatively. We learn how to read, write, and speak but never to think. Understanding that the next big idea could be sitting in someone’s head (with whom you’ve never engaged) is part of the diversity of thought process.
When we organize our brainstorming sessions, we reach out to the creative team expecting them to produce the answers. There’s no question that creative personnel bring a lot to the table, but what about the “unusual suspects” – those individuals who, on the surface, may not strike you as the most innovative visionaries, but who may surprise you with a great idea (i.e., the controller in your office not affiliated with the account or the discipline might be able to offer a perspective you hadn’t considered).
An all-too-familiar experience in our line of work are the brainstorming sessions that are out of control, misguided, and unproductive because they become a free forum where ideas are explored and quickly dismissed. It is this chaotic practice that can result in the eureka! idea being lost or undiscovered. Some of the most innovative organizations can discredit themselves because they are not channeling efficient ideation.
Successful ideation processes or brainstorming sessions occur when all of the ideas are collected, and participants are encouraged to think the same way, at the same time – in parallel – so as to capture everything that works about an idea and everything that doesn’t. After all, how do you really know if an idea has legs until you examine its moving parts one by one? I’ve seen a seemingly idiotic idea transform into an exciting idea by just allowing our human nature to stop punching holes and look at it more closely. The idea may completely stink, but the concept may be spot on.
And in some cases, the idea may be completely brilliant, but the concept may need work.
For example: in 1941, George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, took his dog on a hunting trip in the Alps. Upon returning home, he noticed that burrs (seeds) of burdock stuck to his clothes and his dog’s fur. He examined the burrs under a microscope and noticed the hundreds of little “hooks” he saw that caught on anything with a loop, including clothing, animal fur, or hair. He saw the possibility of binding two reversible materials – if he could only figure out how to duplicate hooks and loops. That product – which took 10 years of concepting and perfecting to come to life – is known today as velcro.

So, back to my initial question: Why are we so afraid to bring the big idea, to be risk takers, to be original? Is that we are afraid or that we don’t think we will be successful? I believe we need to kick the habit of assuming it will never be received. In our business, we must continuously pursue innovative thinking and ideas.  

We need to teach our brains to look at all sides of an idea – the unknown, the questionable, the strengths, the weaknesses, the positive, and the negative. We need to – as de Mestral did – look at an idea under a microscope and see its possibilities.

We just might be surprised at what we find.  

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As director, client services, for Nurun, Laura Spaugh is responsible for managing the company’s United States-based interactive marketing strategies for a variety of world-class organizations. She works closely with professionals in Nurun’s other business units to provide strategic guidance and direction to clients in Atlanta. Currently the president of the Atlanta Interactive Marketing Association (AiMA), she is a past president and former board member of Atlanta Women in Communication and is a faculty member of Emory University’s Center for LifeLong Learning.

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