Do or die creativity.

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Few things spur creativeness like the will to survive.

I watched an amazing baseball game yesterday.  The Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox (yeah, I’m a Sox fan, and they won, but that’s not what made the game amazing, from a creativity aspect, that is). From almost the beginning of the game until the very end both managers did some very imaginative things, mostly managerial decisions that were not by the book, as they say, and in many cases diametrically opposed to that book, better known as conventional thinking.

The Rays manager, Joe Maddon, the most creative manager in the major leagues in my opinion, pulled his starting pitcher before he even allowed a single run to be scored.  I won’t go into the reasoning here, but when has that ever been done before, apart from injuries?  And Maddon was forced to be creative thereafter throughout the game because of that move AND because his team was in a do or die situation, meaning if they lost the game their season would be over.

The Red Sox manager, John Farrell, a pretty innovative guy himself, was equally creative throughout the game with when he took pitchers out or left them in, in many cases going against conventional wisdom of pitch counts and such, and with pinch hitting and other bold moves, not because he was in a do or die situation, but because he wanted Joe Maddon’s team to do or die.

My point is this: In business we have opportunities every day to do things differently, things that can have a profound impact on the business we run or contribute to.  But most days we do the same old same old, because we can get away with it.  Because we’re not in a do or die situation. If we had to make decisions that impacted the very survival of our business TODAY we would likely think very differently.  Well. why can’t we just think differently anyway?  Because, really, every day we are in a do or die situation, it’s just that we’re not as attuned to the subtleties of a long slow death as we are to imminent demise.




“That’s sooooo been done.”

Yesterday lyrics bold

Maybe not.

Just because an idea seems familiar doesn’t mean it’s been done before.

In a book about The Beatles top 100 songs, two of the top 10, Yesterday (#4) and Something (#6) were considered very familiar by the Fab Two who wrote them; Paul McCartney and George Harrison, respectively.  So familiar, that each song writer didn’t even bother to play the song for their fellow band mates initially, thinking the melodies must already have been done.

This happens to people in business quite often.  They come up with an idea, it seems familiar, or just obvious and they figure, it must already exist, so they move on,

Maybe these ideas are so right on, so packed with relevance that it seems impossible that someone else didn’t already have them.  In The Beatles examples, both Yesterday and Something were indeed broadly relevant, as both songs went on to become the two most covered songs from the entire Beatles repertoire, Yesterday the most covered song of all time, period.

So when you have an idea that feels like it might already exist, but you’re not sure, don’t be so quick to dismiss it.  Explore the appropriate landscape to see if it actually might be an “obvious” idea that everyone else just overlooked. Recognize that the very fact that the idea seems familiar might be the reason it could be so successful.  But don’t keep it to yourself.  The risk of having someone else in your inner circle confirm that it’s been done is far outweighed by the potential upside if it is original.  It’s only an idea initially.  Put it out there in conceptual form.  It could become a huge hit in the marketplace.

Note: For people who find the creative development process interesting, the above book “The Beatles 100 greatest songs,” published by Rolling Stone has a wealth of inspiration – real world inspiration, not theory. If you’re a popular music fan you might just be blown away to understand some of the method behind these creative geniuses madness.

© 2013 Tom Monahan

Tom Monahan is Head Creative Thinking Coach at Before & After Inc., a company specializing in training business people to think more creatively and facilitating brainstorming sessions.  B&A works with major marketers and ad agencies worldwide, including Target, Virgin Atlantic, Budweiser and Unilever, among others. Previously Tom was a founder and ECD at Leonard/Monahan, a major incubator for advertising creative talent. Tom has published The Do-it-yourself Lobotomy for John Wiley & Sons, under the Adweek imprint, he was advertising columnist for Communication Arts for over a decade and was written up in The Wall Street Journal’s long-running “creative leaders” series.


A huge negative becomes a huge positive. How big? As big as the moon.

Corona beer has a skunky odor, according to a beer industry insider, because of the distinctive clear bottle.  That’s why most beers are in brown or green bottles.  The smell happens when the beer becomes “light struck”, again according to that same brewing expert.  Supposedly the smell doesn’t hurt the taste.  But it did cause marketers of the beer to suggest the lime slice in the bottle mouth to basically disguise the stench.  Interesting.

Would these clever markers have been as clever if the stink wasn’t a problem?  I doubt it.

But, wow, has the brand and their agency Cramer-Krasselt made that lime slice an enduring branding icon for many moons!  And the hits just keep getting better, as this video demonstrates.

Are others embracing your best ideas?

Everyone says they want creative ideas to propel their business.  But if you’re the one coming up with these massive ideas you’ve probably noticed that the bigger they are, often the harder they are to sell.

On April 16th Before & After’s founder and head creativity coach, Tom Monahan is conducting a webinar on Selling Big ideas. Checkout this preview.

You can read some of Tom’s other thoughts on selling big ideas, directed at the special challenges ad agencies face, exclusively at Thought Legion’s blog.



Are we really willing to look the other way on blatant lack of creativity?

Let’s talk about the Dodge Ram “farmers” spot that ran on the Super Bowl yesterday.  Good spot? Yes.  Wonderful execution? Yes.  Original? No.

The lack of originality doesn’t come from using the Paul Harvey speech, that’s no different than using someone else’s song in the track, it comes from the complete conceptual lift from the above video.

I don’t care if, execution wise, it was mega levels better than the original.  I don’t care if they had the blessing of the liftee, or if it benefits the organization.  That doesn’t make the core idea creative.

I’ve heard some creative directors I respect cutting the creative team and agency some slack because it’s such a good spot.  I agree it’s a good spot.  One of my favorites from the big game.  If I were the client and my agency presented me this concept, I’d like it.  If they told me the concept’s genesis, I’d still probably buy it.

But I’m not a client.  I come from the agency side.  Creativity is what we sell.  Or, so I thought.  I believe it’s dangerous to just passively accept this much lack of creativity no matter how lovely the spot is.

I understand that something doesn’t have to be original to be great.  Take Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s “All along the watch tower.”  Brilliant. But Jimi didn’t create the song.  Dylan did.  If Hendrix never wrote a song and only did other people’s material he’d be nothing more than a great guitar playing cover artist.  Are we now going to glamorize advertising cover artists?

That’s the danger I see from being too accepting of the “creative” team or the agency on this commercial.

The same with the Taco Bell swinging seniors spot.  The only debate there is whether it was a rip off of the Lady Danville “Better Side” video (which was actually much more conceptual, as you’ll see if you watch the entire thing) or the Pepsi “Shady Acres” spot from a few years back?  Take your pick.  Either way.  There’s little originality there.

For the advertising business, an industry that bills itself as an idea business, to quietly accept this lack of originality, on it’s biggest stage, and even applaud it… that, to me, is a very scary precedent.

Let’s put this issue to the ultimate test.  If you were a creative director and you were reviewing a portfolio of a prospective writer or art director, where everything was a lift, would you hire that person?

I rest my case.

Miles ahead creatively

I’ve often looked at Miles Davis as the grand daddy of creative growth.

Not so much because of his creative accomplishment (which were certainly grand), but because of the way he surrounded himself with youth.  And the older he got, the younger were his side men.

I don’t care if you never heard this master trumpet player, if you listen to most any samplings of his work; from his early career to middle years to his swan songs, so to speak, you’d have to be totally tone deaf not to hear his creative growth.

He probably had many secrets to his continuous development.  (Let’s hope it wasn’t the heroine.)  But the one thing that always impressed me was the way he continually recruited youth to assist him in his creative exploration.  His steady stream of pianists alone included some of jazz’ biggest names, usually before they reached their prime.  Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Kieth Jarrett, Chick Corea and others.

Who do you surround yourself with in your creative pursuits?  The same old gang?  Hey, I don’t want to break up your bowling group, but maybe you need to consider tapping into the creative energy of a younger generation.  (That is, unless you are the kids.  In which case you’ve got your own creative issues to deal with.)

I’m not saying hanging with the kids is the only way to maintain a creative vigor.  But if you ever need a shot…

With experience comes the danger to use it too much.  Creative challenges, often by definition, mean the ready answer doesn’t apply.  The youth connection is one way to keep the creative energy high.

Look at Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Edison, and their constant flow of apprentices.  Don’t be so quick to assume who  the teacher was.We  addressing this a lot in this blog.  In a comment on an earlier post about NBA coaching legend, Red Auerbach, Fan of the Green tells of how this creative genius used to elicit his players advice in key game situations.  In the post about Beatles producer George Martin we talked about his youthfulness, but we didn’t stress his collaborators; from the Fab Four to his son, Giles, as Sir George grew older, his “side men” always seemed to be in their 20’s, maybe 30’s.  Hmm.

I spent many years in the advertising business.  Isn’t it funny how the great agencies so often had a creative kingpin at the top surrounded by an ever-changing array of fresh young talent.

In most of the fast track companies I serve as a creative thinking coach the youth movement is so very apparent.  Conversely, about 10 years ago I recall a Polaroid executive telling me how after a wave of layoffs the average age of the company went from 42 to 46.  Ouch.  And where is Polaroid today?

I don’t bring all of this up to suggest the more senior business people need to think about less creatively demanding careers.  I say it to offer encouragement to align yourself with youth, literally or figuratively, to stay vital yourself.

I gave my age-defying wife a birthday card last year.  It said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”  In return I got a kiss reminiscent of old days in the back of the VW bug.

Again, what are you doing to stay fresh?  I also ask, dear blog reader, do you have any examples of other creative giants you want to add to the discussions; people, or companies for that matter, who believed in the youthful energy and benefited from it?