Creative Agency Leadership Creativity

There’s no ‘secret sauce’ to creativity – the ingredients are plain to see

By Ash Ogden | Creative Director

The Marketing Practice


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June 26, 2023 | 7 min read

The Marketing Practice’s Ash Ogden argues that mystical views of creativity are counterproductive. The true ingredients are easy to see: games, experimentation, and ‘mucking about’.

Assorted food ingredients

What's the secret ingredient of creativity? / Tamanna Rumee via Unsplash

People often look at creativity with mystical awe. We think of the Romantic poets spilling forth torrents of verse at the mere sighting of a bird, or the surrealists tapping into deep wells of meaning through psychoactive substances and hypnosis.

This tradition cements the idea that creativity is something special that belongs to certain ‘naturally creative’ people: people who are favored by the idea-gods; who can call down inspiration to strike just as surely as if they had lightning rods at their command.

I want to dispel this myth. It actively harms most groups’ efforts to be creative, for several reasons. It relies on a smaller group of individuals, reducing the diversity of ideas. It puts pressure on those individuals to stroke their chins and have a ‘flash of inspiration’ which may or may not come. And it leads to an unhealthy culture of attaching our egos to ideas, which can prevent us from assessing them objectively.

Like many things in life, because we don’t properly understand creativity, we are inclined to view it like magic. But creativity is a practice, albeit a deeply illogical one. This means there are methods to generate ideas and neural pathways that can be trained to help any person think more creatively. Let’s explore three of them in more detail.

1. Mucking about

In his book, Alchemy, Rory Sutherland makes the case that we have over-indexed on logic in our society; that it’s become more important that something makes sense than for it to work. By prioritizing logic, we’ve overlooked the benefits of creative or lateral thinking. Amusingly enough, the best creative thinkers I know are those who messed around at school, spent time gazing out of the window, or twisted the task at hand into something completely different.

What these people have been doing all that time is training the illogical and lateral pathways in their brains over the logical, linear ones. Anyone can start to train these impulses if they reject the more normalized modes of thinking in society and embrace novelty, silliness, and surprising combinations. It’s just that some folks have been doing it for longer.

It’s important to create space for play in your workplace. Build some flex into time allowances so that creatives can experiment, rather than jumping straight to the obvious solution. Don’t insist on there always being a logical rationale for an idea – and if you must, retrofit it so that the creative process itself has not been restricted by the shackles of logic.

2. Creative games

In our agency, perhaps the number one factor that has improved the quality of our creative ideas has been the use of creative thinking games. Games are a great tool for commercial creativity because they encourage exploration, but within a fixed structure (the rules).

The use of restrictions to generate creative ideas is the foundation of any good creative brief. To take it further, we started experimenting with several techniques from Edward de Bono’s school of thought. ‘Six Thinking Hats’ is essentially a game in which the participants agree to adopt one mode of thinking all at the same time and to stick to it (i.e. naming facts, improvising new ideas, thinking positively). This technique not only allows us to generate a huge quantity of ideas in a given time, but to evaluate those ideas in terms of their pros and cons.

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3. Break down your walls

Another essential factor is creating a culture where people can be open about what they love outside of the world of marketing. The objective here is twofold: a) making people more comfortable to be themselves (because creativity relies upon freedom of expression). And b) casting the net wider to find surprising influences for the work.

I have always encouraged creatives to look beyond the world of advertising and go straight to a purer source; what do you like in life? What unique angle does that give you on the brief? The arthouse films of Lars Von Trier, Nike trainers, and slam poetry may not seem like logical reference points for B2B marketing, but they are all genuine interests of our people that have shaped the work we’re proudest of.

Not-so-secret sauce

These techniques only scratch the surface, but I hope I have demonstrated that creativity is not all 'secret sauce’. The ingredients are right there on the label. It’s just that organizations are less comfortable embracing them.

Ask for more data and AI and you’ll have heads nodding. But ask for more nonsense, games and hobbies and you’ll be laughed out of the room. But these are integral tools for the creative process. Those who master them will be the ones laughing; hopefully, all the way to Cannes.

Creative Agency Leadership Creativity

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The Marketing Practice

The Marketing Practice is a leading, global B2B agency that delivers growth right across the funnel.

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