There’s a scene in Pixar’s The Incredibles where Dash, the young son in the family of superheroes, has gotten called to the principal’s office. On the ride home from school, Dash’s mom tries to explain to him why they have to hide their powers.
“Right now, the world just wants us to fit in; and to fit in, we’ve got to just be like everyone else.”
“But Dad says our powers make us special.” “Everyone’s special, Dash.”
But Dash sees the truth for what it is. “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”
Apparently, a lot of people in advertising these days haven’t seen The Incredibles. But we’ve all heard it: Anybody can have an idea. We are all creatives. Ideas can come from anyone.
It sounds good, doesn’t it. The idea that no matter who you are and what you do for a living, your ideas are worthy of being created as surely as any writer’s or art director’s or designer’s. Hell, were it not for the artificial labels we assign to one another, the next big Super Bowl hit could just as easily be yours. And even if that never happens—well, who’s to say what a big idea is anyway.
This slightly south of delusional thinking comes as no surprise, of course. Not when we live in a society that’s willing to end spelling bees because, well, a lot of kids are going to lose in them, and nobody feels good when losing—so hey, how about we just not have spelling bees at all. Not when we hand out participation trophies so that all the kids on the swim team can feel good about themselves instead of trying harder to win next time.
In his recent blog post “‘Everybody Is Creative’: The Big Lie That’s Killing Madison Avenue,” New Breed Talent Army cofounder Mark Wnek puts it this way: “For some time now, Madison Avenue’s most senior executives have gotten away with the ‘everybody’s creative’ lunacy. It has allowed them to take millions upon millions of dollars–worth of so-called top creatives off their payrolls—and with nobody going to the wall for quality.”
“Lunacy” is too kind. “Dangerously insane” is a better way to describe what’s happened to the idea of the idea. Wnek is right when he writes: “Every day we read stories about how Madison Avenue is failing, yet none bother to explore the obvious link to what is now a serious dearth of true creative talent.”
How did it come to this? Where and when did we decide to choose alternative facts over the stark naked truth that very few of us are capable of having ideas that connect with human beings? Fewer still can generate those ideas on demand, with the crush of a deadline rushing at you like a freight train.
Not everyone agrees with this. Not even every creative. RT Herwig puts it this way: “The fantasy that not everyone is creative, although romantic, is dangerous and outdated. As our industry gets faster and more complex, we need to come up with new ideas quicker, and it takes different kinds of thinking from different disciplines to come together to solve today’s briefs.”
No argument there. Getting to great ideas more quickly? Totally. Different kinds of thinking from different disciplines? Here’s where it gets a little foggy for me. If “different” means ideas that are spawned from technology or B-school mumbo jumbo bearing little resemblance to the human condition, I’ll just get off the bus at the next stop. It’s simple. If your idea can pass through the lens of humanity, I’m with you. If it doesn’t, then it might be creative, but it doesn’t count because it isn’t creative in the way humans need it to be.
Sir Kenneth Robinson, in one of the most viewed and beloved TED Talks ever, maintains that as children, we are all creative. Then we go to school. We grow up. And whatever creative ability we once had is beaten out of us.
What Sir Kenneth failed to point out is that there are some of us who go into advertising and have whatever feeble embers of imagination that might have been left behind wrung out of us. For this, we can thank the holding-company bean counters. Open office plans, those dehumanizing monsters. The siren call of technology. And, of course, a society hellbent on leveling the playing field of creativity.
We all want to feel alive. We all want to believe that our ideas are worth something—that we’re more than just gears in the machine. That Sir Kenneth might have been right about everyone else but, dammit, he wasn’t right about us.
“We imagine; therefore, we are. We create, and therefore, we deserve a place at the creativity table.”
Advertising can keep believing that. It can keep devaluing genuine creativity. Push it to the bottom of the totem pole. It can keep asking itself why it never saw winter coming. Or it can come back to its senses and admit, once and for all, that Dash had it exactly right.
If everybody is creative, then nobody is. ca