Interview for SEMPL conference

The biggest killer of creative ideas is fear

Dave Birss, writer, speaker, advisor

8 February 2018

In advance of speaking at the amazing SEMPL conference in Portaroz, Slovenia, I was interviewed. And the interview was translated into local languages and published in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites. The conference is focused on my old industry of advertising, so that’s the thrust of many of the questions. Here’s the original interview in English.

SEMPL: Dave, you are a creative and strategic thinker with nearly 20 years of experience in advertising. You’ve had a variety of different jobs and projects. Can you tell us which one was a breaking point in your career and why?

I’ve learned from all the strange jobs I’ve done. And there have been so many ‘whoohoo!’ and ‘oh crap!’ moments that it’s hard to pick one.

One big turning point for me was being fired from a job after a colleague told lies about me. I initially thought it was a disaster but I immediately stepped into a better job. The very same day, in fact! It made me realise that it’s better to quit than to stick with a job you’re not enjoying. That resulted in me quitting a few jobs over the years and leading a pretty happy life.

SEMPL: If you compare creativity in the “Mad Man” era with “Big Data” era… where is it now?

I tend to roll my eyes when advertising people refer back to the ‘creative revolution’ of the late 1950s and 60s. People harp on about the glory days of advertising when the ideas were great and the industry was exciting. But they fail to understand that the world of business has changed dramatically in that time. If creative ideas aren’t as good any more, it’s probably because of the system rather than the talent.

In the advertising world of 1950s New York, it was the person who owned the company – like the founder of an airline – that came into the agency and explained their problems or ambitions. They worked directly with an account person and a creative person. And they used the new phenomena of mass-media to come up with an effective solution. Those days are long gone.

Now we’ve got giant companies run by someone who’ll get a $5 million pay-out if they get fired. And they’re ultimately responsible to an army of faceless shareholders who don’t know much about any of the businesses in their portfolio. Below all of that you’ve got layers of adequacy on both the client and agency side, where each person is trying to second-guess the person above them. By the time the brief hits the creative team at the end, there’s little room for any big creative thinking. They end up styling the collective incompetence of the dozen or so people in between them and the actual problem.

SEMPL: What’s up with the challenge of drawing with the wrong hand? Does it boost your creativity? What’s happening with our brain when we force ourselves for example to draw with the other hand?

People often start from the position of ‘I can’t do that’. I hear it all the time in business. I especially hear people say “Oh no, I’m not creative”.

I think this is a lazy excuse. It holds people back from their potential and leads to them living small and unambitious lives. Which I find really sad. I think you should always be learning and pushing yourself.

I was discussing this with my friend Relja Dereta in Belgrade and we decided to try a little experiment on ourselves. Relja is left-handed and I’m right-handed and we wanted to see if we could teach our other hands to draw. That would prove to us that the brain is more flexible than people think it is. So last summer we set ourselves the challenge of doing a self-portrait with the wrong hand every day for a month.

My first attempt was dreadful. Completely embarrassing. But I found within about a week that I could draw nearly as well as I could with my right hand. It just took me twice as long and resulted in slightly wobblier lines. Within a couple of weeks the wobble had reduced and my lines were smoother. By the end of the month, I could confidently say that I could draw with both hands.

The brain is amazingly flexible! There’s an English phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. People who aren’t even that old use it as an excuse not to change or learn anything new. I’m on old dog. And I’m always pushing myself to learn new things. Because if you don’t make the effort to make yourself bigger, the opposite happens all by itself.

SEMPL: Your life is full of experiments – what was your craziest experiment?

I’m cheaper than a laboratory full of monkeys, so I regularly run experiments on myself. Not all of them have a good outcome.

About 15 years ago I wanted to see if I could improve my creative output by breaking down habitual patterns. So I’d get out of bed a different way each morning. I’d put my clothes on in a different order. I’d brush my teeth a different way. I’d take a different route to the office. This would go on all through the day with me consciously doing things differently. And very soon – I’d broken down lots of habitual patterns.

It was exhausting.

About 6 months into the experiment I realised this wasn’t necessarily a good thing when I was standing in the kitchen trying to work out how to make myself a cup of coffee. I’d never had to think about it before. Now it took effort. All this conscious thinking led to me not having as much time or energy left for generating ideas. It took me over a year to recover.

A few years later my colleague, Rory Sutherland, informed me that the measure of a man’s intelligence is how many things he can do without thinking. I’d done the opposite of that and turned myself into a dysfunctional idiot.

SEMPL: Why do you do experiments?

I’m curious. I want to learn. And I like adventures.

SEMPL: You did some of the experiments to break your habits. Are they all bad? Which one should we break?

I’d recommend you break your media consumption habits. Especially if they involve the Kardashians.

SEMPL: You’ve worked on radio, television and in the advertising industry – how are they the same regarding creativity and how do they differ?

In all three industries people tend to copy more than they create. Formulas become popular and lots of people try to jump on tried and tested bandwagons.

But the industries differ wildly in budgets. I’ve filmed a 6 part TV series – that’s 3 hours of content – for a smaller budget than most 30 second ads. In broadcast, I needed to apply creativity to solve the problem of working to a tight budget. Whereas in advertising, I’ve needed to apply creativity to solve the problem of how to spend a large budget.

SEMPL: We’ve seen you breaking smartphones with a very special tool you call The Nudge and then stating you saved creativity. So digital devices kill new and better ideas?!

We’re addicted to our devices. And that’s stopping us from getting the space we need to think properly. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to sit still and see how long you can go without getting the urge to check your mobile. If you last more than a couple of minutes, I take my hat off to you. Most people get an overwhelming urge in a matter of seconds.

That’s because we get a dopamine buzz every time we get a like or a comment or a retweet. And that high – short as it may be – is something we crave.

We’re constantly interrupted with notifications that we think we need to check immediately. If you’ve got a smartwatch, it’s even more difficult to avoid. It makes it harder than ever to set aside a few uninterrupted hours to really explore a problem. So we end up with first thoughts rather than best thoughts.

Technology causes other problems on top of this. But this is the biggest issue, in my opinion.

SEMPL: You also believe we use technology wrong. How is that?

Yeah, we can’t completely blame technology. We need to take a certain amount of responsibility for how we use it.

For example, what do you do when you’re researching something? You do a Google search, right? Stats show that less than 10% of people bother going to the second page of search results. And less than 50% of people look beyond the first three listings. These figures indicate that people who are trying to solve the same problem are working with the same obvious information. And because we’re working to tighter budgets and time-scales than ever before, we don’t tend to take the time to go and observe real people or ask difficult questions or try to understand the problem from different perspectives. Naturally, this obvious and unimaginative input leads to obvious and unimaginative output.

In the 90s we thought that technology was going to give us more time. I remember writing ads for software in the 90s where the brief said that it would allow people to do the work in half the time and then go and play golf. The opposite has happened. We’ve got less time for ourselves. And many people don’t have enough unconnected quiet time to get to know themselves and dream the big dreams. That concerns me.

SEMPL: “Wrapping the tentacles of your mind around the problem” – is an expression you like. Can you explain it, please?

It’s a phrase from the book A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. It was originally published in 1940 but it’s still a beauty. And it only takes about 20 minutes to read.

He uses this phrase to describe what it’s like to spend time getting to know the problem. It takes uninterrupted time and a playful attitude. You explore the possibilities and question the assumptions. You get to know what you can play with and what’s immovable. It’s an important stage of creative thinking where you really get to understand the issue you’re dealing with before you start seriously generating ideas.

As I said, the way we’re using technology is having a serious impact on this part of our thinking process.

SEMPL: You’ve said our brains are the smallest they’ve ever been in 10 thousand years. Has technology something to do with it?

I’m not sufficiently qualified to say exactly why our brains have been shrinking over this period. But I do know the brain prunes the parts we don’t use. And it grows the areas of the brain that we use more. It develops like a muscle.

As we outsource our skills, we naturally weaken our brains. Why do we need to read paper maps when we can use Google Maps? And before that, why would we need to have a mental map of our surroundings when we had paper maps? We’ve pretty much lost our innate abilities to track prey, predict the day’s weather, know what berries are poisonous and spot predators. As we outsource more skills to technology, we’ll probably start to lose them too.

If our brains are shrinking because thinking skills become redundant, they’ve got a lot more shrinking to do in the next 10,000 years.

SEMPL: Computers are for “doing”, they are not for “thinking”. Creativity is all about thinking. This pretty much sums up your feelings about the technology.

That makes it seem like I’m anti-technology! I’m not. I run a training company where I teach people to code in a day. I love computers!

This is really a comment on how people in management don’t fully understand how to operate their employees! We have different modes and assumptions based on our environments. When a computer is in front of us, we tend to think productivity involves rattling the keys as fast as we can.

But that’s all about output. Sitting in front of a computer encourages you to jump to execution too quickly. You tend to end up crafting your early ideas instead of carrying on the hunt for the best ideas. If you want to get good ideas, you need input time, inspiration time, processing time, play time and down time too. A desk with a computer on it isn’t the best place to do those things. I used to tell my creative department to get out of the office and go and do their work in a museum, coffee shop, pub or somewhere else. A pad, a pencil and a brain was all they needed.

When they’ve got their amazing ideas, they can sit down at their desk and use the computer to execute them.

SEMPL: Can you explain the “Google effect” and how it affects our brain?

Quite simply, if you think a piece of information is stored on a computer, you’re less likely to remember it. Just Google it, if you don’t believe me!

That means it doesn’t hang around in your mind to be of any value in your future ideas. There are ways you can fight this. When you find a valuable piece of information, writing it down in your own words is a great way of getting it into your head. Some studies also indicate that writing it out by hand helps you retain information better than typing. But we’re only just getting to understand this stuff.

SEMPL: We cannot avoid talking about social media – it’s not good news for creativity is it?

Social media is a wonderful tool. These platforms help people with common passions connect in a way they never could before. But they draw to light some human weakness that existed long before social media was invented.

One problem that’s been talked about a lot in the last year is the filter bubble. People tend to be connected to like-minded people. And they tend to like views they already agree with. The algorithms interpret your likes and shares and give you more of the same stuff, shutting you off from alternative and challenging views. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the technology. It’s just what people do naturally. That’s why humans feel the need to belong to a community. It’s the need for confirmation and the lack of threatening challenges. People are putting too much blame on social networks for this when the fault lies in the way humans are wired.

The bigger issues for me are the constant interruptions and how social media affects our self-esteem. There is a strong correlation between Facebook use and how crap we feel about ourselves. I’m considering a one month social media fast to see how long it takes me to get rid of the urge to check notifications!

SEMPL: What is the optimal state to come up with the ideas?

There’s so much that affects our ability to come up with ideas. So I’ll just pick one: the state of not giving a shit.

The biggest killer of creative ideas is fear. When you worry about what other people might think, you end up censoring the most interesting ideas. When you stop giving a shit, you allow yourself the freedom to embrace the ideas that are edgy, original and uncomfortable. That’s where you want to be!

SEMPL: Are creative directors born or made?

A bit of both. You need to have developed the skills to know what a good idea is and how to craft it. But you also need to have the right personality.

There are too many creative directors who enter the role with ego and arrogance. They like the power and the glamour and steal all the best briefs for themselves. That makes for a terrible creative department. The only way to succeed in that environment is to become competitive and self-promotional. So the alpha males tend to do quite well and everyone else gets left behind.

Instead of lording it over their department, a good creative director understands that their role is to support their colleagues and give them the freedom and space to come up with the best ideas they can. These creative directors are rare and pretty special. Even when you show them some crappy ideas, you’ll still leave their office feeling like a winner and enthused to go and come up with better ideas.

A lot of the time people are promoted to a creative director position for the wrong reason. They get the promotion because they’re great at coming up with ideas. So they get thrust into a role they don’t have the people skills for. And they end up with less time to do what they’re good at. That’s terrible for everyone.

SEMPL: It says on your webpage you are helping people and organisations boost their creativity and innovation. What sort of people come to you for help?

I’ve worked with a number of agencies over the years. I’ve mentored Creative Directors, done lots of training on behalf of industry organisations, advised the board of directors and run inspiration sessions.

I work client-side as well, helping them generate more effective ideas for their organisation. I have a system that replaces the dreaded brainstorm and gives them a much better chance of ending up with great solutions. It’s having a lot of impact right now!

One of the most interesting things is to work with both agency and client at the same time to help them explore new opportunities and see problems from different perspectives. I love doing that.

SEMPL: Over the last few years, we’ve heard quite a lot about the creative economy. Can you explain what the creative economy really is? How important is creativity for business?

I guess my simple explanation of ‘creative economy’ would be generating ideas that add value to business. Some people think it only refers to the creative industries but I would argue that everyone is creative and it applies to any idea that has an economic impact, regardless of the industry.

Creativity and innovation have become big words for business in recent years. IBM’s 2010 study of the world’s top CEOs reported that creativity was the most important skill for the future of business. That sounds good but it also showed a misunderstanding of what creativity is. Creativity is vital but businesses need to understand that it’s not the solution – it’s the vehicle that leads them to their solution. They can’t expect creativity to solve their issues if they don’t fully understand what their issues are. There’s no point getting in the car just for the sake of it – you need to have a destination in mind.

SEMPL: SEMPL is mainly focused on knowledge. How crucial is knowledge compared to experience? Which is more important for creative thinking?

You can’t put one before the other. Experience is applied knowledge. And knowledge grows with experience. They shouldn’t be separated. You need to be hungry for knowledge. And you need to be hungry for experience. You have to feed both of them if you want to grow.


If you fancy it, you can see a little snippet of my talk at SEMPL here: