It was a long, long time ago. My brother Martin and I would accompany our ageing grandfather and his tortoise-shell bull terrier Chips, for walks by Barking Creek. This was a windswept, desolate place. We could play freely in the derelict gun emplacements, throw sticks for Chips to fetch, and cast messages-in-bottles out into the brackish water.
Chips was our widowed grandfather's soulmate. They went everywhere together.
One day by the Creek, Chips began scampering off into the distance and we chased after him. He kept running and we kept following. Soon our grandfather was left far behind, unable to keep up, and Chips kept running, and we kept following.
It seemed that Chips was on a break for freedom. Our grandfather would soon be bereft of his fondest companion. Martin and I began to panic.
I turned around and shouted to grandfather, now way back in the distance. "Grandpa, Chips is running away. What do we do?" ''Stop running," he cried. And we did. And Chips stopped too.
I guess the Barking Creek Crisis taught my brother and me a lesson about cause and effect. We thought Chips' running was the cause of our running. In fact the reverse was true.
It was a useful lesson. In life we often unwittingly confuse cause and effect. When we look at the world around us, we rage against what we imagine to be the causes of our problems, but frequently they are just the effects of them. And when we look at ourselves, we imagine we are at the centre of our own universes, influencing events, determining our futures. We tend to see ourselves as causes, when in fact we are effects. Because for most of us, most of the time, our behaviours, and even our beliefs, are the effects of other people's habits, tastes and preferences, of extraneous events, of conditioning, custom and convention.
It's a melancholy truth, but perhaps inertia is the driving force in much of our personal and work lives: the endless repetition of patterns that were laid down by others years before; theme and variation played out with infinite variety.
Working in a creative business we may think we are different; that we are the ultimate paradigms of free expression, that we are causing change on a daily basis. It's in the job title. But often much of a creative agency's activity entails translating, transplanting, adopting and adapting. Responding to events, to competitive action, to the predispositions of clients and customers, to the conventions established by our seniors and forebears. Executing the strategy, extending the campaign, evolving the idea. Much of the time we're just keeping the train on the tracks.
You might imagine our clients would wish for more than this. But often their primary focus is the management of consistent delivery and performance across time, geography, platform and outlet. They don't want to change the world. They're not looking for a New England. They’re just looking for another year of steady, incremental growth.
Now you may find these observations a little depressing. But I don't. For me they serve to illuminate the fact that genuine, original, creative thought is a rare and precious thing. Pure creativity, the kind that rewrites rules, reinvents language, changes minds and precipitates new behaviours, is not called into play very often, even in a creative industry. But when it is, there are few people and few businesses that can deliver it. Creativity's value is enhanced, not diminished, by its rarity.
Indeed, although much of commercial life is driven by conformity and consistency, systems and processes, creativity is becoming more, not less, important. Because, in a more confident economy, CEOs and shareholders are less and less satisfied with modest, incremental growth rates. They are setting more ambitious plans for the future. They are asking for step change innovation. Inevitably the strategies and behaviours that deliver steady, incremental growth are not fit for dramatic step change. And the people who are suited to keeping a train on the tracks are rarely capable of laying new lines.
As one of our founders, Nigel Bogle, has expressed it, 'growth needs space'. And to discover new space you need a pioneering spirit, a very particular combination of original thought, persuasive skill and mental stamina. Pure creativity is not just the best answer; it is the only answer.
If you're pursuing a creative career, you may be intimidated by the scale and congestion of the creative industry. But fear not. If you genuinely have the ability to ignore convention, to set aside case studies and best demonstrated practice; if you can find a way of changing the behaviour and belief of individuals, and thereby communities and cultures, you'll go far. Because there aren't many people like you around: People who dare to be different; to be a cause, not just an effect.
First Published: YCN Magazine 10/07/2014