Creative Generalist: Wander & Wonder
Where to start? What is the big picture? This is the beginning point for all creative scenarios. And to see the big picture one first has to understand a lot of different variables – most of which we are not well versed in and may very well not be aware of at all. Generalists are important at observing everything and seeking out a particular something that is most relevant for specialists to pursue. A generalist is a divergent thinker who is in touch with a large realm of possibilities.
Creative Generalist is a six-part series
At the heart of this, the creative process is inextricably linked to a fairly soft notion called inspiration. Inspiration is highly personal, extremely contextual, and sometimes completely vague in any rational sense. And yet it is the pillar for any true specialized innovation. Inspiration is the seed from which ideas grow and creativity blossoms.
Where inspiration comes from
So perhaps it is fitting to say then that inspiration comes from everything. But we have no exact way of pinpointing what part of everything it derives from, and so open, freethinking is essential for its emergence. It could even come from the interplay of everything with everything else, in which case inspiration is most at home in highly communicative, collaborative and social environments.
This is a fairly straightforward point. Ideas follow inspiration, which comes freely at a friendly intersection of diverse multidisciplinary, multi-industry, multicultural thinking – exactly the kind of thinking that our focused lives tend not to have enough of.
One field that has more than its fair share of eclectic minds is marketing communications. Some of the brightest, most culturally aware, integrative thinkers are those who figure out how best to communicate ideas to others. That said, they also inhabit an industry undergoing extraordinary change – a Chaos Scenario, as Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield puts it – due in no small part to the media fragmentation caused by specialized innovation.
“A significant issue that arises for agencies as media choices multiply,” says Alan Wiggan, communications consultant and retired founder of Hayhurst Communications, “is the need to integrate their client’s messages across a fragmented media landscape; to be advertising generalists, simultaneously building the brand to a mass audience and selling very specific benefits to micro fragments.
This in turn means having an incredibly diverse talent pool to draw on – and that requires a change to the traditional structure of agencies. It is not financially feasible to employ all these folks full-time so the agency will likely, more and more, only be made up of the strategic thinkers and project creative directors … big picture people with the ability to identify and manage highly skilled freelancers.”
Generalism comes in especially useful at the early campaign planning stages that form the foundation on which highly talented (and increasingly outsourced) designers, writers, photographers, directors and technicians later apply their refined skills. It’s generalists who plant the conceptual seeds and it’s often not only the quality but also the breadth of their upfront thinking that determines the ultimate success of a campaign.
Machines of popular myth
Uber Account Planner Russell Davies, formerly of wieden + kennedy and Nike, puts it this way: “Advertising creativity is not an especially pure form. It’s mostly about the collision of ideas, trying to create something new and attention grabbing. So we need to be interested in a wide range of ideas. And advertising isn’t big enough to support the specialists that you might suspect we’d employ if we were the efficient manipulation machines of popular myth. We don’t have staff anthropologists, ethnographers, econometricians, statisticians, semioticians, propagandists, MBAs, blah blah blah. So we end up doing a little bit of everything. And any planner who’s any good, I suspect, is interested in a little bit of everything.”
The chief reason why ideation is now so important is that it starts at the beginning; in the truest sense of exploration. The main argument as to why generalists can offer such valuable assistance with this is that they can hunt down and recognize more different possibilities than can specialists. Generalism is not simply a nice-to-have; it’s essential that someone focus on everything.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing. It cannot be overstated how important the simple act of asking a naïve question can be. It triggers the consideration of something altogether new. It deposits some speck of impurity into the mix. It opens up avenues that lead to new intersections. But it is only a receptive mind that is able to answer a naïve question. You have to be open to the unexpected, so that, if you wander upon a discovery, you’ll recognize it and act upon it.
This is the second of a six-part series on creative generalism. It is adapted from a February 2008 post by Steve Hardy on his blog, Creative Generalist, and reposted here, in its adapted form, with the author's permission.