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Article: Feeding the Inner Creative Beast

Sure, some people are simply more creative that others. Some are creatively brilliant. But let me tell you, successful creatives types—massively gifted or not—are always feeding their creative beast. They develop and grow it to the point that they can generate great ideas for any occasion. They know universal truths about marketing a product appeal. They know about people and how they respond to different things...and they know where to dig and how to stoke the right desires. They take that and combine it with savvy about a particular business and shazam! Creative that fits.

There are guys out there who are creative grease fires. Steven Heller. Seth Godin. Dan Kennedy, Alex Bogusky. Those flames don’t burn in a vacuum. Those guys are always at it, always paying attention, always chowing on inspiration and information.

You can do that. You can be creative. Maybe not start-your-own-creative-agency creative, but creative enough to tweak up your business engine. You can be creative and innovative and nimble in your niche. You should know your business better than anyone. Know your ideal customers better than anyone. Know what turns them off and what turns them on—better than even they do themselves. You should be “always on” in thinking about creative angles and promotions and cross-sells and such in relation to your business.  Everything you see others do should be analyzed and mined for some gem you can use, studied for some takeaway you can make work for your setup.

HOW? Start with your mindless time, say, driving to work or traveling somewhere where you’re sort of on auto know the route, things are flowing smoothly and you don’t need to be too mentally engaged. Instead of singing to the radio or yakking on the cell phone or listening to talk radio, work at being more creative. Think. Analyze. Pay attention. Look at the billboards and signage. Think about your customers, what’s been working, what’s not. Push on ideas that you’ve had, see if you can take them somewhere. Keep your eyes open. Lose the blinders and see what others are up to.

Here’s the KEY: Have a way to record your ideas and thoughts. Do it right then. Stop and do it. A little notebook and pen works great, except when driving, or running. A digital voice recorder (does your cell phone have that feature?) does the trick in those instances. You must record the ideas and inspiratins in writing or voice or it’s gone. You’ll rarely remember. You’ll think so, but you won’t...not the critical little details that made it make sense, if at all.

Another must do: Fill the Well. You may love to watch sitcoms or read sports, but what you need to do is fill your mind and stoke your senses with creative fuel.  You need to be reading business magazines, creativity and business blogs, marketing books. You need to be stoking the flames with anything can find. Listen to people talk. And write stuff down. Pack-rat the good stuff to go back to from time to time to re-read and recharge your creative batteries.

Understand this about creativity: the mind—your mind—is lazy. It does just enough to get by. That’s why being entertained is such a popular activity—somebody else has done all the thinking for you. When you squeeze your brain for creative thinking, first out will drip the cliches and same-old same-old. The common. The easy. The really good stuff is deeper, harder to get at. Why? Because it requires some major bio-mechanical computing power to make connections and examine relationships and try to find matches and probabilities.

What-iffing is a lot of mental work. If-onlying is easy—it is simple wishful thinking. What-iffing isn’t wishful thinking, it’s active problem-solving. And once you push through and accept and acknowledge the easy stuff your creative mind machinery servers up, the better stuff comes next...but it’s not always recognizable as good stuff. Why? Because it not clean and tidy and completely understood. Because we like to judge it for merit on the spot. Don’t. Just let it flow. Don’t pass judgement, just get it down and keep going. Some other time you’ll go back an examine it from all angles, push and pull it, get the measure of it. Give it a rest before you go back and shine the light of practicality on your creative output.

And when you do, do it this way: don’t look at those fresh and unusual idea in terms of why they won’t work, but rather with a true desire to figure out how they CAN work. They won’t fit into the standard holes in your business board, so how can you carve some of the holes up a bit to make them fit?

So, puke it out and clean it up later. Just get the creative flow started, capture what your thoughts and ideas are in raw form and keep going. Bounce off the possibilities and move on, looking for another angle, a different way. Get it down, then weed it later. And get it all down. The bad, cliched or uninspiring stuff that comes along first. Write it down. Treat it with respect. Once you do, your mind will release it and go on. If you don’t, it keeps coming back. And if you do, you’ll also be able to examine the seemingly worthless stuff for valuable nuggets—ways to twist it, spin it, turn it inside out, take it to another level, find a spark that can ignite a new fire.

Question Everything. “When you find yourself thinking or following traditional ideas that everyone assumes are right, question them. Ask yourself if it’s really true, and if so, why? Why does everyone think this? Is it possible there are other ways of doing things? Question everything, and you might come up with some surprising answers.” This is from a woman in Australia who blogs as skelliewag. That quote is gold.

Here’s the point: just because it’s tried and true doesn’t mean universally applicable. You see, it depends. Things change. Balance shifts. Some of the greatest of innovative business and marketing moves have come as a result of some questioning the status quo, some rule of thumb. Nothing is static. Rules of thumb attempt to fix in place what refuses to be fixed. Think of them as snapshots of a reality that has long since changed and evolved. They have value, but are not all-serving. (see Crawl Out From Under Those Rules of Thumb)

Bounce your ideas and possible directions off of others. Why it helps: First, talking through an idea and its possibilities forces you to get specific and connect the dots of reality. Second, the responses and insights and experiences of others can deepen the idea, enrich it, solidify it. Thirdly, they can find blind spots and point out obvious holes that you missed, helping to polish and bullet-proof the newly-hatched idea. Just use someone you trust, avoid “yes” men/women, and beware of going into committee with it. Committee-vetted creative tends to be a compromised-down crap built around the lowest common denominator...unless that committee is made up of highly creative people. Most committees are not.

Learn from Your Mistakes. It can be painful and hard to do...naturally we want to forget and move on to the next hot idea. But failure is a teacher, and much can be learned from reading the ashes.

Practice. You’ll get better with practice.

Persevere. Creativity is a skill like any other. Takes consistant effort.

Don’t Go it Alone. Involve others who have a stake in the business. Build a creative culture among the stakeholders—partners, employees, vendors & suppliers. Go beyond a suggestion box. Invite and incentivize ideas. Creative improvements can be made at almost any point along the business process.

Hold focus. Once you really get going, what will often happen is you’ll go too wide, get too shallow...generating plenty of creativity, but not enough follow-through and implementation. Get one thing working well before jumping to the next. You may think others will take the ball and run with it, be as excited and sold on the idea as you are. Probably not. Take your foot off the gas and things will likely stall.

Test! The thing about great creative thinking: it’s only valuable when it works. Before betting the farm on a seemingly no-miss idea, do some testing. Feel things out, get the pulse of the marketplace, the customer. Testing goes beyond speculation. Beyond studies and focus groups. Beyond research. Testing is mix-it-up-see-what-happens. Sometimes great ideas are too far ahead of their time, or too late, or too hard for customers to connect to. Sometimes other marketplace forces have to be working in your favor. And sometimes, you just don’t have it quite right. Testing allows you to figure those things out and make adjustments before the consequences break you. Even the genuises don’t hit everything out of the park...creativity and “good” are just so subjective. Interest so fickle.

—Michael Waite;