Emma Davey
Feb 27, 2019

Build a creative culture, not just a creative department

You can’t buy a creative department, argues Edelman's senior digital manager. You have to foster one by encouraging inspiring real-life experiences.

Build a creative culture, not just a creative department

Over the past decade, the communications marketing industry has had to confront some big challenges, including technological disruption, changing consumer behaviors and the narrowing differentiators between marketing, advertising and public relations. The conventional response has been to hire new and uncommon talent in order to solve client challenges in an integrated and differentiated way.

So far, the response has been successful. The walls between advertising and PR are beginning to melt away. Agencies like mine are competing for briefs we’d never have had the chance to pitch for before. New services are springing up and, most impressively, our skill sets are broadening. For the first time, we are seeing crossover with data analysts, media buyers, creative directors and management consultants. The possibilities are endless.  

But it would be foolish to think the job is done. Simply hiring for the transformation is not enough. We need to build a creative culture, not just a creative department.

Make learning habitual by making it fun

You can’t buy a creative department, but you can foster one by making learning habitual and changing the focus from certificate learning to lifelong learning. Building knowledge on a range of topics, and constantly wanting to learn about new things makes someone truly creative. Creativity is the sum of experience, knowledge and ideas. But too often we miss out on the lived experience side of creativity.  

It can be as simple as reading an article on a topic you know nothing about, grabbing coffee with someone interesting, going to a gallery and being exposed to a new idea or simply nerding-out in a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Structurally it helps to put some habit around things. At Edelman we take the afternoons of the last Friday of the month to encourage discovery out of the office. We have seen team members take this opportunity to push themselves to try new things that they wouldn’t have done if they weren’t being encouraged to regularly try new things. One of my favourites was when a colleague hosted a ‘Create with a Mate’ workshop to teach us how to upcycle household items.

Until our employees understand the value of knowledge and how this drives creativity, this might be a chore. But, if we focus on this as an area of growth and encourage our teams to tie this learning in with something they are passionate about, we will start to see a much stronger creative culture and ultimately, high-quality, passion-led ideas.

Think outside of your own brain

Habitual learning is at its best when you can connect what you’ve learnt from your new experiences with what you already know. This will mean you will approach a problem in a way that isn’t immediately obvious to you. This is especially important in the fast-paced world we live in where it is often easier to use a familiar approach rather than looking ahead and breaking free of our thinking patterns.

When I get stuck, I often use the old trick of putting myself in someone else’s shoes. For example, how would a marine biologist solve this problem? When you take the time to turn off autopilot and develop ways to think differently, you will see an increase in innovative, creative and inspiring ideas.

To be a well-rounded consultant, we need to have the capacity to recognize that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for every scenario. It’s both the role of management and each employee to foster an environment, and an attitude, where everyone can be innovative and creative. By encouraging people to make learning and curiosity a part of everyday life, we’ll start seeing the creativeness of all our staff, even those without 'creative' in their title.

Ask five people in your team to tell you something new they’ve learnt or experienced recently. If all of them can answer with excitement and passion, it’s safe to say you have a creative culture. Or at least the building blocks to make one.


Emma Davey is senior digital manager at Edelman in Hong Kong.

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