This was written by Tom Monahan and first published in Communication Arts magazine. Although directed to an advertising audience, much can be learned about creative dynamics in organizations by people in any industry.

What makes some ad agencies better than others, creatively? (Not too big an issue, right?) Are the agencies that are perennially represented in the advertising annuals different from other agencies? If so, how? When an agency regularly does great work, what accounts for that? When an agency consistently comes up short, why is that?

Is it as simple as this: The agencies with the most creative talent achieve the most? I’d like to think that’s all there is to it, but I don’t think it’s that simple. The proof is in the performance of many of those people before and after their stints with said agency.

Is it as simple as the fact that some advertisers allow their agencies to do better work? Well, yes and no. There are some clients who do allow, encourage, or even demand it. But, that’s rare. And it’s rarely within their control. Too often after account switches we see the work get dramatically better or dramatically worse. So it’s usually not the client.

Is it that some agencies simply have a better handle on what it takes to do great work and get it through the system? Well, you know, I think it is that simple. And that complex. Because, although that might be the closest thing to a true common denominator, it just ain’t that easy to pull off.

Think about the modern era of great creative agencies. Heck, throw in the agencies that aren’t Hall-of-Fame great, but consistently do admirable work. And the key word here is consistently. Flashes in the pan usually fall into the “exceptional individual,” “great client” or “awards for pretend clients” categories, and are hardly an indication of overall agency strength.

We all have our own list of favorite agencies. A handful show up on most lists.

Now think about what made these fine institutions of creative achievement so good. The people usually came and went. The clients definitely came and went.

So, what stayed?

(I can feel creative directors across the industry causing a low pressure area like the prelude to a late-season hurricane, as they hold their collective breaths.)

I’ll tell you what stayed. The culture.

“Yeah, great.” I can hear a chorus of CDs bellow, in a sound pretty close to hurricane volume. “That’s a lot of help, culture. Could you make it a bit more vague, Monahan?”

Actually, I’ll make it a lot less vague. Or better yet, I’ll let you clarify it for yourself.

You see, as I’ve made the study of creativity a serious vocation over the years, I’ve begun to see more clearly what accounts for creative potency in the best organizations. Believe it or not, there are some common characteristics to high-achieving companies that, if better understood, could be a blueprint for those who are looking to strengthen their games in this area.

Oh, it’s not a science. Never will be. But there’s more order to this chaotic universe than most realize. So I have created a little device to help those in positions of responsibility figure out what works in their culture to promote greater creativity, as well as what’s broke or missing.

I call it a Creativity Force Field Analysis. Fancy term, huh? Actually, I adapted it from a tool used by organizational development people, the plain old-fashioned Force Field Analysis.

This little analytic device is very simple. Just identify what forces propel an organization toward its goals. And identify what forces work against the accomplishment of those goals. The theory being if you clearly recognize the “forces of good” and “forces of evil” you’re in a better position to plus the pluses, minus the minuses, and help the good forces of the Empire overpower the Darth Vader forces, to make your organization better.

In my version of this analytic tool, the goal is simply greater creativity.

(note: you can reproduce this worksheet simply on lined paper)

Now you could stop reading here, fill out this worksheet by simply listing on the opposing arrows the + and – forces left and right, then draw your own conclusions. It’s pretty simple. And you might just get to see a clearer picture of what’s working for creativity in your agency and what’s working against it.

This is one of the things I do when I work with companies, both ad agencies and various other firms in my role as a creativity coach. It’s a “diagnostic instrument,” if you’ll allow me to use my Dr. Creativity lingo (I don’t ask clients to bend over).

The key thing is to be as objective about your organization as possible, to get a clear reading of the true reality. Be warned though, few people are capable of this. Just like most health care professionals find it difficult to take their own pulse. That’s where the objectivity thing comes in.

But if you do want to give this a shot, subjective viewpoint and all, you can remove some of this bias by asking a number of people in your company to do this exercise, then compile the results. And here I’d suggest anonymity, for best outcome. “But my people can say anything to me!” Yeah, right. Those are the most infamous last words ever spoken.

Another approach is that you could do this Creative Force Field exercise as a group. But that, too, can be tricky without professional supervision. As in, it could turn into a bitch session or, worse yet, your group could only state the obvious or blow kisses at one another, avoiding the real issues for the sake or harmony or job security. In such cases you might walk away with a false sense of understanding, having only scratched the surface or each other’s eyes out.

To make this home diagnostic test a little more foolproof, I’ve listed below what I’ve found out to be most of the significant positive and negative forces that propel ad agencies toward and away from their goals of greater creativity. By consulting this list, perhaps after you’ve done the first draft unaided, you’re less likely to “overlook” some important issues.

This is still not an exact process. But it will give valuable insights to those who don’t try to look at it through PMS 709 colored glasses. No company has ever shown up as perfect under this scrutiny, and never will.

And, by my observation, even the best agencies usually have one or more major imperfections, according to these criteria. Often those agencies work so hard to overcome that flaw that it becomes a positive force. Figure that out.

Please note, few if any of these issues are black-and-white. So the question isn’t whether the force exists or not, but how strong it is. Also, note that what is a positive force for one organization might be negative for another (but don’t use this as a cop out). And do keep in mind that contradictory forces can reside on the same side of the force field, and that some forces, such as time pressure, often show up on both sides of the equation, so the end game is to figure out how to use it the right way.

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that some forces are just more important than others. Having lots of lightweight forces working for you, but lacking some of the biggies, won’t get you very far. So use your own judgment to weight your results proportionately.

If you choose to do this exercise, I would suggest that you take some serious, uninterrupted time with it. And remember when you’re finished, that’s not the end, it’s the starting point – the beginning of your rehab plan, if that’s what it takes. And know that there are no quick fixes here. If it were only that easy

Plus, when you’ve identified the culprits that are holding back your creative potential, I wouldn’t recommend you try to fix everything that’s broken overnight. That over-zealous, try-to-do-everything-but-accomplish-little-in-the-end attitude will likely show up as a negative force the next time you do this.

The forces on the following cheat sheet are presented in no particular order, and the lists are not complete. I’ve starred those that I feel are mandators for real success. Most, but not all, forces universally apply.

Often in this process you just confirm what you knew or suspected, which should give you greater conviction to make sure you measure up.

One way or another you’re likely to gain a more thoughtful approach to managing for greater creativity in this crazy business. Just like the best football coaches use observation, intelligence and analysis to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their teams; as do the best generals, film directors and polka band leaders, for that matter.

And I hope, with a little more focused thought, you can improve your creative culture. Because I don’t have to tell you what a challenge it is to do great work today, or more exactly, getting your best work out the other end of the pipeline. It ain’t no party, baby.

May the force be with you.

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Positive Forces

Strong desire from all.
Incredibly strong desire from one or a few.*
Hard work.
Really hard work.*
Constantly challenge ourselves.
Having a clue about the state of the industry.
Strong relationships with clients.*
Strong relationships with clients.*
Strong relationships with clients.*
Enough time to think things through.
Working under time pressure.
Wonderfully creative people.*
Harmonious work environment.
Chaotic environment.
Interaction with others.
Encouragement from creative management.
Genuine support of top management.*
High standards.*
New challenges and horizons.
Fresh perspectives.
Clients who want great work.
Financial resources.
Genuine belief in the power of great creative.*
Ability to make tough decisions, i.e. lose money upholding principles.
Fun environment.
Acceptance of failure.
Tolerance for risk-taking.
Honest self assessment.
Bowling, softball and other socializing.
Open to change, effect change.
Management by intimidation.

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Negative Forces

Lack of commitment to doing great work.
Fear of failure.
Fear of looking bad. Knowing it all.
Snap judgment.
Attachment to old ideas and old ways.
Success. (Which leads to attachment.)
Poor communication.
Poor performance evaluation system.
Disrespect between departments.
Disrespect within departments.
Provincialism (a problem with all size agencies).
Short horizons (a problem with all size agencies).
Unclear corporate vision.
Fragmented business focus.
Not recognizing accomplishments.
Settling for the first idea.
Settling for the first good idea.
Poor, little or no research.
Poor strategic thinking.
Gossiping, whining, excuse making.
Borrowing ideas.
Working under time pressure.
Having too much time.
Too many meetings.
Too many distractions.
Not enough money.
Too much money.
Narrow-minded, opinionated leaders.
Risk averse clients.
Jerks, idiots and A-holes.
Management by intimidation.
Management by committee.


Added bonus

What follows is an incomplete list of forces that have nothing to do with creativity, but at many agencies are higher priorities than many of the important factors.

Country club membership.
Awards for pretend ads that never ran.