News & Views

Opinion / Fuelling Debate

by Contagious Contributor
Jen Smith, global creative director, Maxus, asks if we have lost the art of debate so vital for outstanding creative work. She shares how we can foster constructive challenges



Are you a Leaver or a Remainer? Clinton or Trump? In these informed, politically-charged times we tend to pick a side and argue it with gusto. In our debate from the pub to social media, there’s no grey area. The upshot is that people are often afraid to voice their questions or doubts, and balanced dialogue is denied.

Translated loosely to marketing, all too often I see a nullifying exchange about which idea or execution is the ‘right’ or ‘only’ one, that prevents a constructive conversation from happening.

Having the flash of inspiration is the fun, sparky light bulb moment – and the more of these the merrier. But no idea lives in a vacuum. The best result from a sustained process that creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson calls: ‘Fierce collaboration amongst people with common interests but very different ways of thinking’.

How can we create conditions that foster a constructive, rather than combative approach?

Look for the question

People often feel freer to debate ideas by expressing opinions as questions. e.g. ‘How could that be translated to our video strategy?’ Often they’ve got an underlying idea, but want to ease into the debate via a question rather than a statement. Rather than go on the defence by directly answering the question, turn it back on them and encourage them to share their perspective.

Respect everyone’s strengths

When different parties, say three agencies, come together, welcome any contributions on your ‘turf’ as valuable food for thought. While you won’t always agree, try to use them as a springboard for a useful discussion.

Empathy is your biggest weapon here. Really understanding the others’ day-to-day pressures can reap benefits. In the 1970s the Dutch football team required team mates to play in each other’s positions. What’s good enough for them is good enough for us! While you can’t physically swap jobs, try hanging out at their office to better understand why you keep getting asked the same questions.

Democratise ideas

Offer everyone a platform to propose ideas. At Maxus we run ‘dirty planning’ – a monthly 48-hour open call for creative solutions to problems, opportunities or technology. Winning ideas have come from our receptionist as well as our head of data, proving creativity doesn’t just come from the dudes wearing imported trainers and thick rimmed glasses!

Equip people with tools to handle criticism constructively

To avoid discouragement which can thwart creativity, enable people to positively evaluate whether criticisms have legs and can help them to refine and improve their work. I actively encourage my team to re-read feedback in a Disney princess voice, nothing then feels too vindictive – even if you might feel a little silly.

Condensed timelines and squeezed budgets don’t give us the luxury to ruminate on ideas for hours on end, but creativity deserves and requires space. All of us involved can help by showing empathy, loosening our protective grip on our assigned nuts and bolts and engaging respectfully with alternative perspectives.