Interview by Mark Tungate, freelance journalist and author.
A very simple question to kick off with: why write this book – and why write it now?
I believe it’s ideas that prod and push the world forward. They’re the ultimate currency of worth. I felt the need to celebrate why ideas happen and to highlight why they sometimes sink without a trace. I spend a lot of time in meetings around the world where the goal is simply to come up with a great idea. I found the situations in which we succeeded had certain things in common. A pattern began to emerge. I came to the conclusion that there were specific circumstances in which ideas flourished. So I decided to share those observations.
It struck me that beneath the book’s apparent gentleness there is a faint seam of anger, as if you’re standing up for the rights of the creative community. Is that so?
I certainly didn’t write it with a soapbox beneath me. But I do feel frustrated that good ideas are often killed by compromise, a need for category sameness or politics. Good ideas often look a bit daunting at first, because they’re different and unexpected. But, that’s no reason for dismissing them out of hand. Most innovation comes from having a healthy disrespect for the status quo.
You equate the generation of ideas with freedom of thought. To what extent has this book been inspired by your experience of South African politics (including advising the ANC during the first multiracial elections)?
Mandela was a perfect example of somebody with an idea attacking a horrific status quo. The fact that he could do it with such calm grace was miraculous and awe inspiring.
Many people are threatened by ideas, according to the book. You even state that a good idea should make people a little nervous. Are ideas dangerous?
Ideas can certainly make people feel uncomfortable. A great idea often has no precedent, so there’s no reference point. You feel lost. At first it’s difficult to tell whether it’s just a plain bad idea, or whether it’s the precursor for something dramatically new. But, those are the very ideas we should embrace and nurture. The initial discomfort might be the first signal that you’re on to something special. Unfortunately, most of us are trained the other way.
Is the book subtly addressed to risk-averse clients?
No one was particularly “in my sights”. Maybe it’s also addressed to myself. To keep me honest. We all have a tendency to play it safe. Not that I’m saying we should wildly adopt any idea that comes to mind. But genuine creativity often requires an overturning of systems. It’s bizarre, but we often cling to something even if it’s not working. Habit give us a comfort that’s tough to shake off.
Unless I’m mistaken, you don’t mention the word “advertising” once in the book. Was that a deliberate or unconscious choice?
I didn’t want to write an advertising book because then people would look at it with their advertising blinkers on. I believe these observations are relevant to a wider community than adland. Besides, advertising agencies have moved beyond adland, we’re all chasing ideas now as an organizing principle.
You write that, information, no matter how beautifully packaged it is, will never equal an idea. Is that a message to the news media to provide more insight?
Not only to the news media, but anyone who thinks raw information is an end to itself. In the context of having an idea, it’s just a starting point. I see this all over the world now: a person turns up to a meeting with a presentation stuffed with facts and tries to convince you they’re presenting an idea. But it’s just accumulated information. There’s no attempt to draw an insight from that data. So, no real insight means there’s no real idea.
Do I detect a slight negativity about the Internet?
No, it’s probably the greatest invention of the last hundred years. But what I don’t like is when people use it as an intellectual crutch. OK, there’s a certain skill in extracting information from it and presenting it in an interesting way, but if you’re not careful, that information can clog the system as much as illuminate it.
On a lighter note, you mention brainstorming sessions in the dark, while listening to music or on the roof of your building. Sounds fun. Is the book likely to generate new recruits to advertising?
I just wanted to make the point that creating the right environment helps. There’s also a tendency to dismiss playfulness in the corporate space. I find the right place and mood helps generate ideas. Many times, I’ve been sitting in some beige meeting room with a bunch of people whose brains have seized up. Moving to the local coffee shop, relaxing for a moment and kidding around helps the ideas to start flowing again. It’s common knowledge: the “eureka” moment often comes when you’re relaxing in the bath. Too often we attempt to bully an idea into existence.
Talking of creative people, how did you meet Sam Nhlengethwa, the book’s illustrator?
I wanted the book to be accessible, easy to read and maybe something worth keeping. I think Sam’s beautiful artwork helps it be a “kept” book. I’d never met him before doing the book, but the moment I saw Sam’s portfolio, I knew he was the guy I wanted to work with. I only discovered after I approached him, that he was famous and had exhibited around the world. I think that makes me a pleb.
Check out reviews of the book on adage.com and mad-blog.com.
More background, click here.
If you have any comments please email Ulrich Proeschel.