It is important to define what creativity is because to be useful it should be closely linked to effectiveness.
Take, for example, the classic elevator story. People were complaining about having to wait too long because the lifts in a skyscraper were so slow. The solution was not new lift mechanisms or more lifts. Instead, it was the use of mirrors. When mirrors were placed adjacent to the lifts, the complaints were stemmed. People were kept busy looking at themselves. Instead of the owners speeding up the lifts, they made the waiting time seem shorter!
It’s a great illustration of lateral thinking, of coming at a problem from a totally fresh angle. This novel way of thinking was the route to creativity but what actually defined the idea as creative?
First, it was relevant. It not only solved the problem but it did so at low cost and without disruption. Second, it came from left field; it was the last thing most of us would ever think of. The solution surprises and delights us with its originality and simplicity. It is so unexpected!
The ‘relevant unexpected’ is a very practical way of defining creativity, and it provides a simple measure of whether an idea is creative or not. This is particularly valuable if you work in marketing because creativity is very often essential for communication to cut through. Also, it’s easy to be fooled that something is creative when it isn’t.
You can be fooled by relevance. A communication concept may appear to tick all the boxes because it meets all the rational communication objectives. Unfortunately, in practice, it is only likely to work when the audience is actively seeking a solution to a problem (e.g. wanting to buy a house). More often than not, you have to get the attention of an unengaged audience and then connect with them emotionally. For that to happen, you are likely to need something unexpected as a stimulus.
Unfortunately, you can also be fooled by the unexpected. Way-out ideas may look creative and therefore ‘fit for purpose’ but they won’t work unless they are also relevant. They are pseudo-creative. True creativity, at least in a commercial sense, must be both relevant and unexpected.
It’s a shame but, unlike the mirror story related above, too many creative presentations turn out to be smoke and mirrors. Nonetheless, forewarned is forearmed and there is no better weapon for calling out pseudo-creativity than the relevant unexpected.