Author and professor Adam Grant on why it's a 'travesty' that creative directors are gatekeepers

Adam Grant and Marty Muller, photography by Bronac McNeill

The advertising industry should have more peer reviews and be less controlled by the all-seeing eye of a creative director, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant.

Speaking at the 3% Conference, the author cited a study in which creative directors were shown to shoot down ideas because of their perceived similarity to what had gone before. In contrast, when reviewed by peers, some of the same wildest ideas marked down by creative directors were the highest rated.

"If you're trying to be creative, what's worked in the past is irrelevant to what's going to work today and tomorrow," he said. "We should have way more peer review in this industry. The fact that creative directors are gatekeepers I think is a travesty."

Original thinkers, according to Grant, have more bad ideas than their peers. The more creative you are, the more stupid ideas you have. Citing classical composers whose dedication eventually paid off, and Thomas Edison's many failed inventions, Grant highlighted that in order to have great ideas, you need to have a lot of bad ones. Where we fall down, he argued, is not a lack of ideas but an ability to determine which ones are good and which ones are bad.

The author discussed how to pitch ideas, and who to pitch them to, for the best chance of being heard. Part of this process is creating familiarity with the concept so that others have a frame of reference.

"When you pitch an idea you are not only hearing the tune in your head - you wrote the song. it's hard to fathom how other people are going to appreciate them. We have to figure out how to take our unfamiliar ideas and make them more familiar."

He cited the example of how The Lion King was originally pitched as 'Bambi in Africa with lions', which nobody in the initial screenwriter meetings could understand - until it was reframed as Hamlet with lions. "Take your novel idea and build a bridge to someone else's existing idea," said Grant.

The way ideas are conceived and perceived is also affected by gender. Women are more likely to want to nurture ideas until they are fully formed, while men are more likely to throw them out there.

Grant said: "We stereotype men as having flashes of brilliance so that when they have these half baked ideas, we go 'oh let's build on it' whereas when a woman does that we're much more likely to shoot her down and say she didn't do her homework."

In conversation with Marty Muller, vice-president of creative for Disney Parks and Resorts, Grant also slammed the use of focus groups in the ad industry, saying he would scrap them entirely.

He said: "If I was a creative director I would never run a focus group again. The big concern is that when you get people in a group together you start to get production blocking; introverts and women are silenced. People are afraid to look foolish so they withhold the wildest and craziest ideas, so then you get convergent thinking when people jump on the bandwagon."

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