Newt/Judge Experiment: does alcohol improve ideas?

The Drum has brought Dave Birss on board as its new contributing editor. His first brief? To find out if alcohol makes you more creative...

I know I’m not the first to wonder if alcohol makes you more creative.

For me it goes back to the point where I made the switch from art director to copywriter. I had to write my first piece of copy. Long copy, at that. And after a week of trying and getting nowhere I went out for a lunchtime pint with my colleagues. One Guinness led to two, which led to three and, to be honest, there may have been a fourth but I was a bit too drunk to remember. I returned to the office some time in the late afternoon, sat down at my primitive 1994 PC and the copy poured forth in a oner. Then the copy for the next ad in the campaign tumbled onto the screen just as smoothly. And then the third.

I was done.

I saved the file onto a floppy disc (that shows how long ago this was) and meandered home on my bicycle.

The following Monday I read through the copy, made a couple of spelling corrections and submitted it. It ran without any major amends and went on to pick up a best copy award.


Fast forward to six months ago when I was chatting to The Drum’s illustrious editor over a plate of Thai food and a bottle of house white. He mentioned to me an idea that John Jessup had come up with and asked me if I fancied doing it. John’s got 40 years’ experience in the industry. He’s seen it pass through the days of decadence into the days of fiscally responsible abstinence. Like the rest of us, he’s not convinced that current agency attitudes have done much to improve creative standards.And so the Newt/Judge Experiment was born.The experiment, in a nutshell, involved 18 advertising creatives, split into two equal teams according to their length of service in the industry. One team was plied with as much alcohol as they wanted, while the other team was assigned a liquid diet that the temperance movement would have approved of. They were each given three hours to work on a brief. And once it was all over, their work was judged by a team of big-shot creative directors.Our hypothesis was that drinking booze would initially free up thinking as alcohol lowers inhibitions. Further consumption would then start to impair thinking and we’d begin to see the quality of ideas drop below initial standards. That’s what previous scientific research suggests would happen.


I’ve got to admit that I’m pretty useless at organising anything, and putting this kind of event together is way beyond what I’m capable of. So I was massively fortunate that the far-more-capable Wyndham Lewis came on board, convinced Foolproof to donate their facilities for the night and organised a truck-load of free booze.I then managed to coerce Julian Hanford to be our photographer and Tom Baker (the SCA student, not the timelord) to film the event.I visited eBay to buy a breathalyser and a labcoat – and we were set to go.


On the night of the experiment, our 18 subjects turned up at the Foolproof offices in Clerkenwell, eager to see which team they’d been assigned to. Those who were placed in the alcohol group were immediately handed a drink of their choice to get them started. Everyone else quietly sulked in a corner.While we were waiting for the booze to kick in, we briefed everyone on the evening’s task; we wanted them to tackle binge drinking. The brief was based on the insight that when people intersperse their drinks with water, their evening lasts longer, there’s less chance of injury or violence and – of course – they feel better the next morning. The task was to change people’s drinking behaviour. They could do that through any means they wanted.We ushered them into their rooms and started our three hour countdown.


Most of our guinea pigs attended as part of a creative team. We expected that they’d automatically pair off with their partner and get to work. But that wasn’t the case.Instead, both groups immediately started working in large group brainstorms. I thought creatives hated brainstorms! But we left them to it, expecting them to peel off into their creative teams at some point.They didn’t.After an hour the alcohol-fuelled group ended up pretty leery, with the louder individuals dominating the conversation. We didn’t feel this was the best use of the creative minds in the room, so we split up the group and told people to work in their creative teams for the rest of the experiment.We then went to the teetotal group and asked them to do the same. They refused. I demanded. They got up and walked out. Every single one of them. I’d started a mutiny. It was like a classic Stanley Milgram experiment. They saw me as the authority figure who had denied them alcohol. I was the one responsible for their miserable, sober condition. They hated me.Fortunately, the group returned 15 minutes later, split into their teams and got busy with their Sharpies. After three hours of thinking, we collected their ideas and took everyone out to the pub.


There were a few things we could tell right away.First of all, the alcohol team was actually more productive. That was even after it lost two members within an hour due to over-exuberant wine consumption. This depleted group produced 59 ideas compared to the sober group’s 48. If you like your maths, that means they were 23 per cent more productive. Which was a surprise!Secondly, we mapped productivity over time. We asked everyone to note down the time they came up with each idea so we could plot it on a chart. Again, this revealed some interesting results. You could clearly see the time of the sober group’s mutiny on the timeline. And you could see that both groups had an explosion of ideas half way through, after they’d been divided into their creative teams.But what you really want to know is how we measured the creativity, isn’t it?All we needed was a group of top creative directors to pass their judgement. So we hijacked the Chip Shop jury and asked them to rate the ideas. And what a star jury that was!We’d already pre-selected the best five ideas from each group. That wasn’t difficult; most of the ideas were terrible. I’d spent a day scamping everything up to the same standard (because drunk people don’t draw straight lines). We placed all ten ideas on a table and asked the judges to collectively rate them from best to worst. Nobody knew which team had done which idea, so there was no opportunity to swing the results.Half an hour later, the ideas were ranked. We then scored the ideas; the best idea getting 10 points and the worst idea getting one point. The results of the experiment were pretty conclusive.The boozers came up with four out of the five top ideas, amassing a score of 31. And the sober team came up with four out of the five worst ideas, collecting a score of 24.


The team that drank alcohol came up with better ideas. And more of them.Right now young creatives are celebrating, finance directors are shaking their heads in despair and older creatives are saying “I told you so”.And to the doubters and naysayers who don’t believe the results, I recommend you run the test yourself and tell us how you got on. I’m sure you’ll have no shortage of creatives volunteering themselves to be tested upon.


Can you tell the drunk work from the sober? Answers at the bottom of the page. In order of judges’ preference: Designer water bottles (sober); Russian roulette round (drunk); Water powered videos (drunk); Water incentives (drunk); Liquid tickets (drunk); Bottle cap penny drop (sober); Match the special code (sober); Rain activated poster (sober); Drink to reveal the celeb (sober); Water drinking seats (drunk)

Dave Birss

I used to be an advertising Creative Director. Now I'm on a mission to demystify creativity. I do that by writing, speaking, broadcasting and consulting.

I was the writer, director and presenter of The Day Before Tomorrow - which you can find here:

I also wrote and presented the VR history documentary Secret Spaces, which you can find here:

I'm the author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind.

I'm the founder of

And I'm the Editor at Large of The Drum. So you'll occasionally find my face on this site.

All by Dave