News & Views

Opinion / Creativity starts with following the rules (an ode to conformism)

by Arif Haq

It’s been two years to the week that I joined the team of consultants here at Contagious from my home of ten years at PepsiCo. And I’m very excited. Because this month I had my first article published in Contagious magazine. And although my day job is to work on client briefs, it’s a brilliant perk to get paid for writing proper long prose in a beautiful publication like our magazine. Having been a traditionally trained marketer all my working life, I’m practically effervescing at the prospect of telling someone I’m a writer when they ask what I do for a living at one of those dusky and intimate dinner parties in West London that I don’t seem to get invited to any more.

The article, which you can read here took the form of a memo to clients with advice on how to create better, braver creative work. It was based on principles I’ve established with my clients, many of them counter-intuitively going against some of the myths and misperceptions many of us carry around in our heads. It’s this contrarian aspect that seems to have caused much of the online debate about the article, and which makes it dangerous if interpreted incorrectly.

While it’s always been fashionable to be the guy zigging while everyone else is zagging, we should still be careful about breaking the rules just because it’s cool to do so. Being a maverick might deliver the elusive big breakthrough thinking of the sort we like to talk about at conferences, but experience tells us that success is more likely to be driven by a more prosaic, process-led improvement.

By way of example, I wrote ‘The truth is that good work does not have a correlation with good briefs and bad work does not have a correlation with bad briefs’ – which is true. The danger is discussing this seductively contrarian statement with a less-experienced marketer. It makes it sound as if the briefing process is not important, when in fact an intimate understanding of how to construct a solid brief is a crucial part of learning. My advice was given to those looking to get from Good to Great. However, just getting to Good itself is no mean feat and basic rules still need to be followed to attain it.

One of my favourite film directors, Robert Altman, was a great example of someone who got to Great by going through the basics. Most film critics agree that Altman in large part helped to reinvent the language of Hollywood cinema in the 70s. From spiky war comedy MASH to country music business docu-drama Nashville, his movies are acclaimed as ground-breaking and genre-busting.

Prior to that, during the 1960s, Altman learnt his craft directing mainstream TV shows – the most famous of which was Bonanza. Although a mainstay of American TV for an amazing 14 years no-one could ever accuse it of being audacious. It played by all the familiar rules of the Western genre and middle-class American TV during that period, as it had to in order to keep the advertisers happy. The fascinating thing is how Altman followed it up by directing McCabe and Mrs Miller, a 1971 movie widely known as the ‘anti-western film’ because it ignored and subverted a number of the genre conventions that Altman himself had helped to establish during his Bonanza years.

Before you can break the rules, you’ve got to know what they are in the first place. The principles I establish in my article have been proven to act as small but potent secrets for the senior marketers we work for – I wish I had been aware of them in my previous life. But be wary of making contrarianism king in the day to day discourse with your team.

In his history of management consultancy McKinsey, The Firm, Duff McDonald says, ‘The essence of efficient management is hiring and training unheroic, ordinary people to play by certain rules. You need to take care of that before trying to create leaders or heroes.’

At a junior level, arbitrary decision-making and personal inventiveness can be counter-productive in the quest for creativity. Your fantastic new ideas are not ignored or ridiculed because your colleagues are dull, risk-averse automatons (although that might also be true), but because you have failed to discuss invention within the existing vocabulary of your organisation. Learn the language first and then translate.