On Mixing Creativity With Innovation : An Interview With Gordon Torr

Collaborating, on the foundation of a bad idea, will not create the right outcome no matter how good the interaction between the players. And even with a good idea you need the right management and perhaps structure to nurture it.

 “Today, reliability is no longer a key to competitive advantage. The organisations that will become the names of this century will be renowned for sustained, large-scale, efficient innovation.” – As Paul Adler wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2011;

No Shortage Of Encouragement To Innovate And Collaborate.
No Shortage Of Encouragement To Innovate And Collaborate.

Everybody is a creative and everyone wants an innovative business. At least, that seems to be the case if you read any business magazine or scan the business shelf in the airport bookshop. Modern marketing leadership seems to be all about the ability to manage innovation.  But are we mixing up the spark of creativity with the process of innovation? Recently I met with and interviewed Gordon Torr, the ex-global Creative Director of JWT to discuss how we define and work with creative people & innovation.

Nilofer Merchant, in her excellent book ‘The New How’ argues that modern strategic leadership is now less about command, control and competitive advantage (a notion which she says is now a dead concept) – and more about harnessing creative work, talents and collaborations. She says; “To be successful, you need to facilitate two things. You must enable and then encourage people to step into their roles as co-creators of solutions. You will need to help your entire organisation to think more strategically. Your ability to do these things forms the centrepiece of your new approach to leading.”

Working Alone Can Be A Bad Thing...
Working Alone Can Be A Bad Thing…

Yet most businesses struggle to be genuinely creative, to be progressively innovative, to be truly original. And despite all the courses, books and management presentations, innovation is easier read – than done. As Scott Berkun says in ‘The Myths Of Innovation’ – “Reading a book on innovation is passive and safe. Putting it down and starting a project is active and has risks. No matter how many books you read, this will never change”.

Does every innovation require truly creative ideas? Much of the research suggests, perhaps not. Much successful innovation is built upon entrepreneurship, an open culture and incremental systematic progress and problem solving over radical leaps and creative breakthroughs from maverick geniuses.  Even the teleporter on the Starship Enterprise was only devised after the Star Trek production team realised they could not afford to use the model of the shuttle they had planned. Necessity and problem solving is often the mother of creativity…

So how do we balance the need for a creative individual versus the demands for working with others? How can you avoid becoming the creative genius working alone in a shed performing to an audience of one? And just as importantly how do we prevent the horrors of corporate group think, delivering average ideas approved by a numbing committee?

Recently, I met with Gordon Torr to discuss his excellent book ‘Managing Creative People’ in which he addresses a lot of these questions. Torr is well placed to explain and suggest some potential answers. Starting in his native South Africa, his career saw him lead international campaigns for JWT across the world, managing the teams producing the creative advertising work for brands such as Diageo, Ford and DeBeers. Most importantly, Torr identifies a big difference between an original idea (which has to come from an individual) and any innovation, campaign work or implementation, which may need collaboration. As he puts it ‘creativity is about turning money into an idea. Innovation is about turning an idea into cash’. Which is perhaps the simplest and most useful explanation that I’ve heard. As he puts it his book; “Creativity works best when individuals or small groups are empowered by patronage. Sometimes patronage is bestowed. Sometimes it has to be demanded.” He sets the bar high, the kind of Creative Director who would reject work that was just ‘OK’ – or thinking that was ‘alright’. And so over a coffee in the gallery in the basement at Adam Street Club in London, I began by asking him about the C-Word…

Gordon Torr 'Unless You Can Give Up Bad Ideas It Is Hard To Move On To Good Ones'
Gordon Torr ‘Unless You Can Give Up Bad Ideas It Is Hard To Move On To Good Ones’

What About The C-Word?

Andrew Armour (AA): In your book ‘Managing Creativity’, you explore the topic in a very broad perspective; from art to psychology and from skill to branding etc. But have you missed one vital ‘C-word’? I’m thinking – ‘CONVERSATION’? What is the role of personal dialogue and conversation in the creative process?

Gordon Torr (GT): It’s definitely a kind of conversation. But it’s not one where you find yourself having to explain yourself. In a good creative relationship you kind of know exactly what the other person is thinking – even if to other people that conversation is incoherent.

AA: So, what’s going on?

GT: It’s bouncing of ideas. It’s kind of magical process, especially if the disciplines are different. The writer would be hearing something but an Art Director is seeing something. And they are sharing cultural references. It’s the mood and feeling and an exchange of information. Isn’t that the basic ingredient of creating?

AA: The historian Theodore Zeldin (who has looked at the role of conversation in the history of society, culture and business) says that a great conversation is where both parties ‘enter into it with the willingness to leave it as slightly different people’.

GT: Well, that’s it. In a way a great conversation creates a third thing and out of thoughts of two people often comes another.

AA: A good conversation creates something new?

GT: Yes it can. But unfortunately most of our business conversations are highly transactional. It’s too often about wanting something, persuading, self-defence, fixed principles. And you end up negotiating a compromise rather than having a really creative conversation. I think it’s about finding that ‘third thing’.

AA: Zeldin goes on to say that he wants a conversation ‘on the edge of what he understands, with people he does not know’.

GT: That’s lovely. And isn’t that true? I like people I can completely disagree with or tell me something I never knew and it gives me a different perspective. If you think about what was going on in the great cafes and salons of the 19th century it was all big debates and arguments around art, society, music, politics. It’s about lots of different opinions.

Shall We Do A Brainstorm?

Uh-oh. Its Time For The Creative Brainstorm...
Uh-oh. Its Time For The Creative Brainstorm…

AA: The psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, (in his book ’59 Seconds’) shows that most academic research proves that brainstorms are not effective. He says they can actually encourage ‘social loafing’, a kind of lazy group think. You are also fairly damning of brainstorming and other ‘creative process techniques’. So, despite all the evidence of their ineffectiveness why is brainstorming still so stubbornly fixed in the minds and meeting invites of advertising and marketing people?

GT: I think that brainstorming is the default position when you can’t think of anything else to do. And I think one of the reasons is that it makes lots of people accountable, rather than just one person with an idea. The higher up you are, the bigger the risks and so you default to a brainstorm which normally brings in all the people from across the business to make sure that they are all represented. It’s a kind of animal response; it is a form of protection. It’s like the lizard brain. Fight or flight, anger and fear. The kind of good creative conversations that you’re talking about building and promoting need very high tolerant cultures. The problem is what is the alternative to the brainstorm?

AA: Well, I think the Café Workshop process is a good alternative. It looks to develop a flowing marketing or advertising conversation and to explore the issues in an open way and share information without trying to solve or create anything immediately, as a group. In fact, it may be best for one person to engage in the conversation, take away some of the input and inspiration for a few days and come back with some ideas that they create, either working alone or with a key partner.

GT: I believe that if you are problem solving then you can use techniques and disciplines. You can problem solve in a group and download and converge the thinking. And as a Creative Director I spent most of my time solving problems rather than pure creative work. But then, you will get the one or two people to have that walk outside, to step away from the group and come back with the great idea.

AA: It’s often easier to come up with lots of poor ideas rather than one good one?

GT: The thing is (and this is what I said at Henley) – if you already have an idea and you want to build on it then brainstorming can be fantastically productive. But, you don’t do a brainstorm when you don’t have an idea in the first place. If you want to solve a problem, just limit the thinking. You can say, ‘I just want solutions with a letter ‘P’. Suddenly that becomes very productive because it releases people from the blank feeling. Those little frameworks are useful when well managed and work well in collaborative environments that are fresh. Most of the time we are trying to manage things incrementally better – and that is often what a lot of innovation is. And I like the sound of your Café…

AA: Do you need to be a really strong character to be creative?

GT: Yes, good creative people have to be strong. Not necessarily extroverted but strong enough to protect their ideas. And sometimes they can be hostile and difficult. But conversely, not all hostile people are creative – it doesn’t work like that.

AA: So creative people have to focus and believe in what they are doing?

GT: I think you then get into the area of creative leadership; having a single-minded purpose and vision. The creative people who have a clear vision are more likely to succeed than those that give away on things more easily, just for the sake of collaboration. Creative people need to be managed because they often do not have the social skills to properly sell and value their work. But yes, great creatives, entrepreneurs and engineers tend to be incredibly self-disciplined in their work.

AA: Originality is a really important word in your book. But, if we look at the story of Pixar Animation for example, the creativity is an amazing combination of three very different individuals; a computer and data genius (Ed Catmull), the great entrepreneur (Steve Jobs) and beautiful storytelling and design (John Lasseter). That’s what made it brilliant. And it was Lasseter who said ‘It’s not whose idea it was that matters – we use the idea that makes a better movie’

GT: That takes a huge amount of generosity and trust between those people. And I’ve heard before that the three guys from Pixar had that. But so often in corporate culture you don’t get that generosity. Years ago I went to Barcelona to a great agency and I asked them how come they were so consistently creative and the guy said ‘we just don’t like doing shit’. It was an amazingly creative and generous environment. They even gave up space in their offices to outside artists, animators or writers – just to do their stuff.

On Cuckoo Clocks

AA: Do you need to disrupt good creative teams to keep them fresh?

GT: No, no, you don’t disrupt good teams. Because they are special. I’d rather hire and keep one or two people to come up with the right ideas, rather than twenty people working in a big team brainstorm. The answer to the whole creativity thing is simply to hire great people, give them a brief and let them get on with it. That’s how great things have always happened but you have to keep that bar really high.

AA: In a digital world, where so much content is being produced with speed and everything is measured and monetised do you think the overall creative quality is in decline?

GT: Well, what do you think? There is great work around but it’s very hard to find because there is so much stuff about. As soon as you go after the money you go for easy solutions and things that are easy to buy. But no, I’m not down on the creative industries. There are great things to be found that you don’t expect but often the best work, as always, is on the fringes.

AA: Finally, in ‘The Third Man’? Harry Lime, the notorious criminal played so brilliantly by Orson Welles, famously says to his friend; “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.” Was Welles was on to something? Do we need conflict?

GT: Sometimes, you do have to destroy things to build the new: a creative destruction. There is a lot of theory around that. Because unless you can give up bad ideas it’s hard to move on to new ones.

To Collaborate With Others We Need To Press The Trust Button
To Collaborate We Need To Press The Trust Button

There are plenty of ways of approaching innovation, encouraging creativity and stimulating the right collaboration across your business. For Torr, whilst some systems and processes may help, the best ideas still require the right talent to be involved in ideation. Collaborating, on the foundation of a bad idea, will not create the right outcome no matter how good the interaction between the players. And even with a good idea you need the right management and perhaps structure to nurture it. As with many things, success is a mix of art and science.

Thanks to Gordon Torr and Adam Street Club. You can buy Gordon Torr’s book ‘Managing Creative People’ on Amazon. You can find out more about MarketingCafe Workshops here. For the full interview with Gordon Torr please see my article in TrinityP3

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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