Khai Meng Tham
Sep 28, 2016

To promote creativity, abolish the creative department

Creativity should be seen as something everyone does, not the secretive preserve of an elite few.

Tham Khai Meng
Tham Khai Meng

How to promote greater creativity? The first thing to do is get rid of the creative department. Take away the priestly robes and tear down the walls; pull down the levees and let the creativity flood out. 

Right from the start, we tried to inculcate a culture of ‘pervasive creativity’—an ethos in which regards creative thinking as something everyone does, not just the specialist province of a few mad chefs cooking up wonders on the top floor.

The logic was simple: if you want people’s souls to take wing, you don’t keep them in a cage. The best way to foster creativity is to provide the right conditions for it to flourish.

Many times in history, the conditions were right and creativity exploded. Imagine you were taking an evening stroll along the Boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris just after World War One. You could well bump into Picasso, Erik Satie, Marc Chagall, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Modigliani, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Henri Rousseau, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller or Samuel Becket—to name but a few.

Or try the Indus Valley civilisation, Pharonic Egypt, the Ming dynasty in China, Renaissance Florence, 5th century Athens, Bauhaus in Weimar. When the environment is right, magic happens and the sparks of creativity instead of fizzing out in isolation fall into a box of fireworks. 

We have to go where the dragons live—that‘s where the treasure is. And we must be prepared to get burnt.

This isn’t about hierarchy or autocracy or big management; tight control, regimented behaviour, or running the place with fear. It’s about alignment: everyone getting behind a common belief. It’s about creating a creative environment not just physically, but intellectually in the head space. 

And it’s not just about creatives. It’s about account service, planners, accountants, financiers, people in the studio, the people in despatch. The aim should be to inculcate a sense of belief and belonging throughout the organisation, so everyone feels they are all part of a winning team. 

The brief then is simple. Imagine what no one else has yet imagined. Or, in the words of legendary ice hockey player, Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” 

Power strike: The key to creativity, as in ice hockey, lies not in following but in anticipating where the puck will go.

Centuries ago, map makers marked the white spaces on their maps: “Here be dragons.” We have to go where the dragons live—that’s where the treasure is. And we must be prepared to get burnt. We must face one of our great fears: looking foolish. 

Shooting down ideas is a popular pastime, but there is no such thing as a bad idea. Bad ideas are merely stepping stones to good ones. Failure isn’t failure at all, but a necessary part of the creative process. We must learn to embrace it.

Tham Khai Meng (@ThamKhaiMeng) is co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather.

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