Creative development: How to build and not destroy — The Creative’s View

At the latest Open Strategy event, we had three speakers tackle the topic of creative development, focusing on how planners should build ideas rather than destroy them. VCCP’s Deputy ECD, Jim Thornton, begun the evening by professing his love for planners, declaring that the greatest creative planners have the ability to spot an idea better than a creative — they spot the thing they know they can sell back in to the client, helping the creative’s idea live and breathe. Cheers Jim, we love planning too!

Jim’s talk focused on the creatives point of view of how planning can help build ideas, drawing on learnings from improvisation group, Second City, and their teachings in the book ‘Yes And’. For those of you that want a quick summary, his main take out was we need to talk to each other more, with most great ideas coming out of iterative and organic discussion and mistakes. As an industry, we are frequently being asked to do more, in less time, with fewer people and smaller budgets. Jim argued that this means we have less and less time to sit and chat, but this is where the most decent ideas come from.

He went on to describe the process of coming up with great ideas as an ‘act of faith’ — on behalf of the creatives, the planners, the account managers, and the clients. Everyone involved has to put themselves in a position of trust, as an idea is neither a great idea or a bad idea until it has been executed, and it is all of our responsibility to create the right environment for great work to be created. He suggested that this ‘act of faith’ involved four key ingredients: trust, collaboration, removal of fear, and mutual respect.

Trust is of course hard to come by, but is key to a strong relationship between agency teams. Creatives need to be able to trust planners and account managers to take their good idea and turn it into something great, building on ideas and letting them grow by taking a ‘yes and’ approach, rather than nipping ideas in the bud. He used the infamous example of Compare the Market — if the seed of the idea, using meerkat characters to create stand out and memorability for the comparison site, had been thrown out at its inception for being a ludicrous idea, it wouldn’t have developed into one of the most memorable campaigns of our generation.

Collaboration seems to be a buzz word in agencies these days, and rightly so — bringing the client and the full team into the creative development process makes it easier to sell work, and to make better work, as it gives everyone involved a sense of ownership. However, Jim pointed out that unfortunately this idea of collaboration has been distorted in the mist of time, and now everyone is allowed to have a point of view, which actually complicates things rather than encourages ideas to grow — too many cooks spoil the broth and all that jazz. Jim argued that collaboration needs to be to an agreed agenda — too much time and effort is spent on the input and not enough on the output — rather than focusing on finding a perfect formula, we need to be open to good ideas and help make them better along the way.

Removal of fear was Jim’s key point, describing fear as destructive, as it leads people to shut down, get territorial, offensive, and unpleasant. Unfortunately, fear drives most decisions — not just on behalf of clients, but also from internal teams, and nothing good can come of that. He encouraged planners to do what they do best regardless of fear — use your point of view, make an argument, and stand up for what you believe is the right thing to do — effectively, be brave.

Lastly, Jim talked of mutual respect, admitting that this tends to go out the window due to egos. He described agencies as ‘delicate ego systems’, and straightly put, asked us to leave our ego’s at the door because it’s not going to help. If someone has a better idea than yours, don’t be precious, be open to other people’s points of view and changing your mind for the better.

Finally, Jim read some of his favourite learnings from the book ‘Yes And’, which explained his act of faith theory. The general principle of ‘Yes And’ is the principle of building and not destroying. They talk of the seven elements of improvisation and how they can be applied to any arena, these are as follows:

  1. Yes, And — give every idea a chance to be acted on.
  2. Ensemble — reconcile the needs of individuals with those of the broader team.
  3. Co-creation — use dialogue to create new products, processes and relationships.
  4. Authenticity — be unafraid to speak truth to power, challenge convention, and break the rules.
  5. Failure — not only is it okay to fail, but we should always include it as part of our process; embrace mistakes, they’re what makes us grow.
  6. Follow the Follower — give any member of the team the chance to assume a leadership role, and treat everyone in the team as equals when it comes to ideas.
  7. Listening — Stay in the moment, and know the difference between listening to understand, and listening merely to respond.

This philosophy applies to all aspects of work and life — Pixar use it in their story creation, Jim Carrey tries it out in ‘Yes Man’, but in regards to planning, the best planners are those that will identify the nugget of gold that the creatives can build on — we need to focus on always finding a nugget in the work that can be developed, and being the creatives sidekick and friend, helping them get to great work. In short, and in Jim’s words,


This is the first write-up from the third Open Strategy ‘School of Planning’ event: Creative development – How to build and not destroy. Keep an eye on future events here.