Why ideas don’t make you creative

kevin macmillan worksFollowing on from Tom Donald’s piece suggesting planners should learn how to fight or lift weights to become better planners, Kevin Macmillan, creative partner at The Works, suggests how to make creatives better at what they do.

I read with interest the thoughts of Tom Donald on hiring former sales people and ex-business owners as planners, or failing that make sure your planners learn a martial art.

Most of what he said could have been directly applied to creative because it all centers around one specific point; development is not a substitute for application.

And just like a good plan, a creative idea is worth nothing without application.

As a starting point, I’ve always been amazed at how few people actually apply their ideas to paper.

Once you have applied the thinking to paper it actually exists. It becomes real. So few creative ideas are applied to paper these days. Why? It’s because the idea talks back to you from the piece of paper, forcing you to answer difficult questions; now you have drawn me, do I look as good as you thought I would? Will people like me? Do you even still like me? And the idea is often capable of saying, ‘I reckon you got a lot more work to do to justify why you sold me in the first place!’

This is why people don’t apply their ideas to paper, it’s confronting. The dreamy development stage turns into something tangible. Like talking about your ability to make a cocktail instead of making one and stepping back to see someone’s reaction when they drink it.

As Tom puts it, your cock is on the block.

Great ideas come from application, it pays to write/draw every idea on paper, even the ones you don’t necessarily think are good ideas. Because every now and again a supposedly ordinary idea looks back at you and says, I’m better than you thought, I actually have potential. You could probably get some use out of me with a bit more effort.

Of course once your idea is committed to paper and you’ve decided to listen to what it tells you, it always means one thing; you are going to have to put more hard work in. It’s that application thing.

Here’s another critical reason for applying ideas to paper; it reduces the pointless discussions around the idea.

In reality there are a lot more shit ideas than shit hot ones. Somehow, people find it hard to close a shit one down early. The time and money wasted is amazing, people sitting around in break-out rooms, on beanbags and other bouncy things which are there to give the appearance of ‘wow look at me, I am totally an innovator’.

A beanbag won’t make you creative. A jar of bloody lollies to give you a sugar rush won’t make you creative. Not even an idea makes you creative.

What makes you creative is application.


  1. Peter Rush
    9 Nov 12
    12:50 pm

  2. Disagree.
    Application doesn’t make you creative it makes you logically look at the first solution. Thing is but, virtually every piece of advertising is logical. Despite all our hype, we don’t actually work in a creative business – it’s a logical one. There is virtually no creativity in advertising – and never was. Think of your favourite ad. Does it have a sequence of logic i.e. Could someone else have eventually come to the same end result by thinking through the problem. I’ve been in advertising for 16 years and never met a creative person. Just a lot of clever logical thinkers. Creative people make links that don’t appear to make sense. And probably won’t make sense for a several years. They have a direct line to the subconscious. They don’t work in advertising because creativity doesn’t sell. Logic does.

  3. meh
    9 Nov 12
    1:12 pm

  4. The better the creative, the more weight articles like this carry, and vice versa.

  5. Wild Oscar
    9 Nov 12
    1:14 pm

  6. Now this is sensible advice!

  7. Ben Coverdale
    9 Nov 12
    1:56 pm

  8. I agree with Kev. Doing beats thinking, hands down.

  9. Bre
    9 Nov 12
    2:02 pm

  10. Well said Peter, however I think that creativity and logic have a more concrete relationship that you’ve described. Creativity, whilst logical, is making something look creative to those that are purely logical.

  11. Andrew
    9 Nov 12
    2:04 pm

  12. Peter Rush – I recall a salesman’s mantra used to be: Logic opens the mind … emotion opens the chequebook.

  13. Richard Moss
    9 Nov 12
    2:23 pm

  14. Hang on…….wasn’t that shit idea written down at some point? application makes you creative? I am beginning to feel like Groucho Marx talking to Margaret Dumont.

    Creative thinking makes you creative, being able to see outside the square and having the courage to confront sacred cows. Anyone can write something down, but the true creative has to be able to tear it up and throw it away willingly. I agree in part with the article, but the instant answer is way too glib.

    I am not too happy about the “advertising is logical” claim either. Everything is logical, even the illogical has a kind of logic. Creativity often involves a logistical approach to the illogical.

    The creative must be able to defy logic, the major problem with advertising is that the client, after tearing his/her hair out during the creative and other logical processes, really only cares after the event; once the product rises a notch and sells like hot cakes, the journey tends to get forgotten.

    Its amazing how many line up for piggy stamps once the hard slog is over.

  15. BK
    9 Nov 12
    2:55 pm

  16. Paper? What year is this?

  17. Roseanna
    9 Nov 12
    5:15 pm

  18. Dear me, everyone seems to be so keen to define what it is that makes one person ‘creative’ versus another person who is ‘logical’. Having made a handsome living as a ‘creative’ person for many years in many agencies (including my own) and many countries, I’ve found that the truly ‘creative’ people are a combination of ideas, skill, craft, application, wisdom, experience and, believe it or not, humility. Having one talent does not preclude having others.

    I’ve observed that the people who live a big life are the ones who have the big ideas, and know how to apply and develop them into persuasive communications. However, that makes it necessary to look to grown-ups, i.e. creative people over the age of 40 (or even, shock horror, over 50).

    Empathy is the key to great creative thinking and it takes years of hard knocks, hard times and learning about life and what makes people tick to acquire. Which rules out most of the kids who think they are hugely creative but find it impossible to articulate their genius, much less commit it to developed scripts, design, layouts or any other recognisable rendition. How could they? They haven’t lived yet, they have only just begun to learn their craft and our brilliant school system abandoned the necessity of teaching them how to structure, think in and apply their own language.

    You can’t defy logic until you understand it, and you can’t speak to someone in their own emotional language until you’ve walked a few miles/kilometres in their shoes. Let’s get over this silly notion that all creativity lies in people under 30 who can hardly put a sentence together, much less a campaign.

    Let’s get the grown-ups back and get some real creativity, craft and application
    going on here while the kids practice their alphabet. In another 20 years, they might even turn out to be pretty good.

  19. hey meh
    9 Nov 12
    5:37 pm

  20. genius comment. “The better the creative, the more weight articles like this carry, and vice versa.”

    I’m going to quote you alongside some other geniuses to make your head bigger, because in my opinion it deserves to be.

    Sir John Hegarty summed it up best in my book. He said a creative idea is 99% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

    And Andrew, Lee Clow said “When posed with the question to go for the head or the gut, go for the gut, it’s much closer to the wallet.”

  21. Soooo....
    9 Nov 12
    6:04 pm

  22. @Peter Rush I don’t actually disagree with you, but if that is your definition… who IS creative?

  23. Meg
    9 Nov 12
    10:38 pm

  24. Creativity to me is about making something new out of the stuff around you. That stuff might be paper and ink, or the beginnings of a business plan, or a sandwich. All people are creative. Some are braver than others when it comes to the exercise of creativity and sharing their creations. Some are great at logic and strategy. What makes great work is when all of these elements come together to solve a problem, and in this industry we get paid to solve business problems. I don’t think it’s important for individuals to possess creativity AND logic AND have the ability to activate and project manage. What we need are teams who can achieve this together. That’s where empathy becomes important, I agree with Roseanna on that. But I don’t feel that empathy or creativity or any of these important qualities is defined by demographics. Emaothetic leaders who can make creatives, planners, and doers work in synergy is what we need. There just aren’t enough highly creative, strategically minded, ex-sales, entrepreneurial doers alive to fill an industry let alone a single agency. Teamwork, empathy, and guts people….

  25. X
    10 Nov 12
    10:18 am

  26. Is that beer fairies ad creative?

  27. Simon
    12 Nov 12
    12:06 pm

  28. Every creative person has their own logic, it is just that some logic is more conventional then others.

    Creativity ideas are spawned from experiences, observations and prior practice.

    Getting the idea down on paper, to me, is the best way of giving your idea the best possible chance for success (or in some cases to question whether its even going on the right track) and encouraging further creativity!

    As a marketer, with business ideas, I find that they come to me the same way as when I am coming up with an song idea as a musician…usually in the car, when I am not consciously thinking about the subject matter. I then frantically reach for my iPhone voice app to get it down…that is the ‘initial’ creative spark.

    From there, it’s always good to get your idea down and do what is suggested above…however that is simply what separates the dreamers in the world who have wonderful visions and never execute to those that follow through and achieve some degree of success (no matter how big or small it is).

    I know many people that are much more creative then I am, however, I actually get off my arse and write, jam, produce and record the song…going through the process to give it the best chance to achieve over and above the initial creative vision (however many have been dumped too)…I also follow a similar process with campaign plans, website plans etc.

    The parallels of being in a band are the same as being in a team, get it all down, share it, get the ideas back, and then document the next phase, do some testing with small target audiences…sometimes you chose to proceed with a plan, other times you dump it only to realise that it may not have been the right context for that idea. Releasing a song follows the same process, except it’s easier to make money from being a marketer then it is from being a musician.

    Finally, being a martial artist, teaches you discipline, creativity, adaptability and the constant repetition and honing of skills to strive for perfection that will never be achieved, but by which you simply have to be patient and comfortable with. It also teaches you to get out there and compete with the skill set that you have (against all levels) and points out which skills you need to acquire to compete against your desired competitors.

    Time to get back to the dojang I think.

  29. raquel
    12 Nov 12
    8:25 pm

  30. Creativity is about original ideas. Presenting an idea, be it a brilliant idea or a boring idea, and communicating it in a way that is different and unique. Presenting a simple product in a way that can give it new meaning and new life.
    Creativity is such a broad term and I don’t believe anyone will be able to give a true description to what it actually means, because it is different in everyones eyes, and that can be seen as creativity right there.
    It’s a thinking process, it’s an application process, and it’s an artistic process. It can be logical, it can be illogical, but it is mainly different and unique, unheard of even. I agree that an idea doesn’t really make you creative, but it does when you write it down, or draw it, or explain it to another. Its how well you can present your idea, and how well you can capture the attention of the listener that makes an idea creative. A creative idea is one that is worth listening to or looking at.
    Many of the people who have commented about this article all hold some truth, many have contradicting thoughts about what creativity means, but its those individual thoughts that define creativity, because it is an individuals way of thinking. Its unique, and when you have the interest of others thats what makes that idea creative.

  31. Creator
    12 Nov 12
    10:58 pm

  32. Excellent sales reps are creative, especially since the GFC. I would liken them to being as creative as magicians. They think on their feet and can reel off originality depending on the client or environment. Creative chameleons they truly are!

    People who put images together on a Mac are not creative, they are logical. It is logical to pop a good looking smiling woman in a hat on a poster promoting Melbourne Cup, with a bottle of champers and a horse nearby.. It is logical placing a cuddly kitten next to a tin of whiskers as it is also to insert a hairy bloke, wearing a ‘wife beater’ next to a giant VB logo…

    I agree! Advertising is not creative, it is the people selling it !!!!

  33. Anne Miles
    13 Nov 12
    9:17 am

  34. I love a decent challenging discussion, thanks everyone. To be honest I don’t see our industry ever lacking good ideas. They’re everywhere and they come from all different places. I don’t think that resolving the definition of creativity is what we need because it will be different things to different people.

    What I think the issue in the industry is, and in a way ‘getting it on paper’ touches on it, – the issue is in implementation and process to let those good ideas stay alive and foster the best of them.

    With an industry starting to misunderstand the role of a good creative producer the work is often not supported and is being hacked at by every hand that touches it rather than supported and nurtured to let it come alive. The good work out there that we all admire, I can bet money on the fact that a good producer is behind it most of the time – whether that is TV, online or print work. Sometimes there are people that multi-task and take on producer roles which is great, but not understanding the role of a decent producer is what will limit the idea. The definition of a producer could be argued too but for my purposes it is someone that is responsible for the activities and process that get that idea made – regardless of who is taking on that task.

  35. Meg
    13 Nov 12
    10:59 am

  36. I agree Anne. Producers are project leaders. Leadership is what we need to nurture ideas by supporting people and process.. :)