Mike Fromowitz
Jul 20, 2011

Where have the risk takers gone?

What's the connection between creativity and risk-taking? Pablo Picasso, the 20th Century's greatest artist, provides the penetrating insight: "Every act of creation is also an act of destruction."...

Where have the risk takers gone?

What's the connection between creativity and risk-taking? Pablo Picasso, the 20th Century's greatest artist, provides the penetrating insight: "Every act of creation is also an act of destruction." Only by breaking from conventional ways of thinking, exploring and operating can we put together new concepts, approaches and products.

Keep in mind, while they may be interactive, creativity and risk-taking are not necessarily reciprocal. By definition, being creative involves taking chances and risks; being risk-taking may or may not be creative.

For an industry that prides itself on ideas, creativity, risk-taking, and being different, many ad agencies do a horrible job at it. When I started in the ad business, advertising was the most interesting thing around—comedian Bill Cosby said “advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”.  Advertising was about creating the “big idea”, a way to engage millions of people and help a company grow its bottom line, fast.  Advertising was exciting. The goal, as far as I was concerned was to create ideas and to deliver creative advertising campaigns that sell.

Over the years, creative people, myself included, were the first to bitch about a client that wasn’t willing to try something new, to take the big risk with their brand or to invest in unknown creative territories.  We also complained about clients not willing to approve the great campaign that could last for years.  We bitched when they said they wanted to focus on immediate sales or traffic drivers.

Ad executives itch for more creative freedom

According to a survey by recruiter The Creative Group: In an age where creativity and innovation is a key factor to business success, many ad executives are itching for more creative freedom on the job.

Nearly one-half of surveyed ad and marketing executives say companies don't take enough risk:

  • 35% of ad execs say their agencies don't take enough risk with creative projects, and another 7% say agencies "play it much too safe."
  • 25% of marketing execs say their firms don't take enough risk, and another 18% say such firms "play it much too safe."

Another one-half say risk levels are right on: 46% of ad execs and 45% of marketing execs say their companies take on an appropriate level of risk with creative projects. Meanwhile, fewer than one in twenty advertising and marketing execs say "too many risks are taken."

Years ago, I was told: “The job of the creative person was to take risks”.  As a young creative, I took this to heart. We were the crazy ones. The ones who were innovative. People at parties wanted to talk to us because we were in a very interesting industry. We created entertaining stuff that people talked about.

To see the obscure and to forge novel solutions, requires the will to leap from the familiar into the unknown. Creative risk-takers have a special bent to disrupt rigid or conventional patterns, to tear down their world in order to rebuild it with a new vision. George Bernard Shaw said it best: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

What allows creative risk-takers to take the plunge and resurface even after their ideas receive turbulent rejection? According to psychologists Dellas and Gaier, "creative individuals have less fear than the average person of making mistakes. The best of these have a strong enough ego to admit when they're wrong or in trouble, and to analyze and learn from their errors.” Rollo May, a well-known psychoanalyst and author, observed: "Creative persons are precisely those that take the cards that make them anxious."  You could say that creative people really do their best when playing with a loose deck.

Creativity is the ability to develop new ideas.  But every new idea isn't innovative, and many ideas never see the light of day.  Why?  Because the only way to make some creative ideas become reality is by taking risks. Taking risks is not easy.  Risk taking means that a person is willing to push his or her ideas forward at some potential risk to his or her own security, career, reputation, or self-esteem. Not to mention his client or employer’s.

Why not go out on a limb?  That’s where the fruit is.

American General George S. Patton said, "Take calculated risks.”  Risky advertising is just that—risky. However, to echo Mr. Patton, a ‘calculated’ risk can make for an extremely effective advertising campaign.

In a scene from the movie "Bananas", Woody Allen and his co-star Louise Lasser have a heated discussion. Woody can't understand why she doesn’t want to get more involved with him and asks in disbelief, "Why won't you get closer to me? (no doubt—a risky proposition). Louise turns to him and says with exasperation, "You really want to know? Because you're immature intellectually, emotionally and sexually!" After a pregnant pause, Woody exclaims, "Yeah, that may be so. But in what other ways?"

Woody shows he's not going to let a bit of criticism dampen his resolve. He not only doesn't take Louise's comments personally he doesn't take them at all. As a creative person, I envy Woody's imperviousness to rejection. Is this an essential quality for being creative and for being a productive risk-taker?

Ironically, many ad agencies don't understand how much risk is associated with failing to act quickly enough in today's spontaneous and fast-changing world. To be anything less than proactive when it comes to being creative is simply handing over the dice to your competitors. Management should be placing their chips on creativity and creating a seamless creative culture.

The ability to change quickly and successfully is becoming more critical than ever. In the end, marketing and advertising has to produce something people talk about. If it’s not a big idea, then it’s a big waste of money and a big waste of creative effort.

Being different for the sake of being different

For creative people, there is the danger of seeking to be ‘different’ just to be different, and just to be 'creative'.  The excitement of new ideas may mean that this becomes an end in itself, and the purpose of the idea is forgotten. When it comes to taking risks in advertising, creative people must learn to leave his or her ego at the door.  Making your own personal mark isn’t what’s important here. Making the mark of the client is. When the creative person’s ego gets in the way, this can weaken an original idea.

The user of an idea needs benefits more than novelty. What benefits will the idea provide? How are these going to be delivered? What are the risks? Creative people need to switch more of their attention from novelty to benefits. A revived old idea that promises benefits may well be more useful than a brand- new idea with doubtful benefits. As I have suggested above, while 'showing off' is a powerful motivator for creative people, it can also have its dangers. A skilled creative person must be able to direct his or her creative skill at a defined task. Widening the definition or changing the definition is part of the creative process, but in the end the suggested ideas must serve the purpose for which ideas are sought.

We've heard that adage so many times. ‘The more you risk, the higher the reward.’ Is this realistic or not? In my early years as a Creative Director, I tried to convince clients to take on a new idea that I boldly said was “groundbreaking”, “creative”, and would be a "first of its kind" execution. To sell in ideas and concepts that were risque and controversial, I alluded to David Ogilvy’s old maxim "You can't bore your consumers into buying your product — you can only excite them".

Over time, and with more experience with risk and its mitigation under my belt, my viewpoint has changed.  It is not true that the more you risk, the higher the reward. To take risks - any amount of risk - means being open to possibilities of failure and success.  I see risk-taking as a friend.  Without any risk, there really isn't reward for you, the client and the consumer.

How often have we heard client comes to an agency and asks for "breakthrough" creative?  Creative goes off and conceptualizes brilliance. It’s presented internally and everyone loves it. Then it goes off to the client and some MBA says, "I like it personally, but I don’t think the CEO will buy it”... or, “Somebody might be offended by it, so can you just tone it down."

Chris Kyme, a creative director in Hong Kong believes: “Most clients don't want great work. They want average work done efficiently and on time. It makes them feel good and comfortable. It takes courage and conviction to buy off on something creatively daring.”

Sadly, I think a good number of agencies are more conservative now than health insurance agents when it comes to risk taking. Which is to say, there is very little risk taking at all. “Tone it down”. “Play it safe”.  The client ultimately fires the agency anyway because toned-down creative never cuts through the clutter and doesn't increase sales, and that simply causes the client to fault the agency. The client chooses another agency and repeats the cycle over and over and over again.

This is not to say there are no agencies or clients who take risks. There are plenty who do. But as a whole there simply isn't enough risk taking in this business. And that's a shame. Perhaps it's time for clients to start asking their agencies and media buyers to think like brokers and financial analysts. It's time for agencies to start thinking of creativity and risk-taking in terms of investments—in the real sense of the word.

How can you expect creative people to stick out their neck only to have the guillotine blade drop on it? Ad agency executives hate making mistakes. They also don’t do enough to convince clients that making mistakes is a positive thing. Mistakes happen when people get creative, when they experiment.

To have a culture of creativity and innovation in an ad agency, you need to tolerate and welcome mistakes.  I often substitute the phrase “risk-taking” for “innovation,” since risk-taking lies at the heart of innovating—that is, trying out new ideas.  To take risks, you must banish the ‘fear’ that is all too common in today's corporations. 

Creative culture is one of learning from mistakes

In a mistake-avoidance culture, you'll hear about the drastic consequences of taking risks, about past failures, about how only successful actions will be taken.  In a culture that stresses playing to win, taking risks is integral to the business process.  Corporate heroes are those who put their neck on the line, not the time-servers who play it safe.

The history of innovation proves, again and again, that quick judgments are wrong:

  • "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." —Thomas J. Watson, (1943) President of IBM
  • “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” —Dr. Lee DeForest, inventor of the vacuum tube)

How to create a creative culture

A creative culture is one in which people are open to each other's suggestions and ideas. It’s also an environment where people feel free to challenge the status quo and try out new approaches. This type of culture makes it easier to engage in developing new ideas. In a creative culture the management focus is less about hiring a few outstanding creative individuals and more about creating the conditions that draw out the creative potential of everyone in the organisation.

If you are an agency that wants to build a creative culture and do good work, someone in your creative department has to develop a good working relationship with the real decision maker on that account. If you are a client that wants good creative work, you've got to let the real decision maker at your company work directly with the real creative leader on your account. To create great ads and to sell them you have to get your best creative person together with the real decision maker. And make sure you get everyone else out of their way.

To build a creative culture, companies need to develop an effective climate in which people are motivated not only to be creative, but where they are motivated to take risks and make mistakes. To do anything, people must feel motivated. People who feel challenged, engage in their work. It becomes a part of them, not just something they do. They feel the need to get out there and act, not just to sit back and dream or mope.

Creating a creative culture for risk taking is not easy. Here are some things you can do to start the process of creating a creative culture:

  1. Good ideas always win, no matter who has them, or where they come from.
  2. Everyone has an idea and deserves to be heard.
  3. Encourage, creativity in all aspects of work: office hours, dress, office set-up and decoration, etc.
  4. Don’t tightly constrain creative people by narrow job descriptions and management oversight.
  5. Never start a job unless there exists an approved strategy and a signed brief. This way you help creative people get the job done right the first time. The briefs should be simple, inspiring and insightful.
  6. Never ask them to produce work in less time than it will take to do it well. Discovering and developing ideas takes time. When people are constrained by time, they will not have the ability to go beyond basic ideas.
  7. Be secure enough to admit your not the only idea person on your team.
  8. Be secure enough and respect the ideas of others as good, or even great.
  9. Look for ideas that are totally opposite of your ideas.
  10. Respect your systems, but challenge them often.
  11. Having fun is not always realized as being a productive state, but it is. Look at children. Their 'fun' is almost all learning and discovery. We get this beaten out of us at an early stage in school, where learning is supposed to be serious.
  12. Empower the creatives on your team to become “owners” of a project.
  13. Discuss the end user experience early and often.
  14. Avoid boring meetings for your team.
  15. Support your teams ideas, no matter how radical.
  16. Accept when your ideas fail.
  17. Allow conflict and debate. There are those who find it easier to preserve the status quo.  Creating healthy conflict requires an openness to challenge, and a respect for the individual.
  18. Become more problem-oriented, not just solution-oriented. Don't rush to judgment. A vital part of creative decision making is experiencing frustration.
  19. If you assume that creative ideas are always risky ventures, there can be a tendency to avoid creativity altogether, and this will result in your agency operating well below its potential.
  20. Our so-called "failures" can be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that so often enrich - widen and deepen - the risk-taking passage.
  21. Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. Sometimes it's good to step away from the safe, the known, the familiar patterns of working. Sometimes happy accidents can often follow and new ways of working can open up.

More often than not, our most prolific creative moments come in the spaces between the notes, if we are willing to risk going there. In the words of Andre Malraux: “Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk —and to act.”

Mike Fromowitz



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