Science, creativity and attention

Attention-seeking has a negative ring to it. Still, as an advertising creative or marketeer, it’s pretty much your job description. Of course, there are good and bad ways to seek attention. Bad: drawing attention to the ad (and the clever people who made it). Good: drawing attention to the message.

Science shows us the value of focused attention. When we pay attention to something, our brains automatically assume it’s worth our time. And therefore interesting, important, valuable. This can also backfire. Get attention with a discount, and the brain will decide price is really important right now. Which might not be what you want.

In today’s media landscape, attention can’t just be bought. It also has to be earned. By being surprising and relevant. All this happens at an almost subconscious level. It’s not about the strength of your arguments. It’s about triggering an emotional response.

It’s no coincidence that we say PAY attention. It is a kind of currency. You give attention to a consumer’s needs. And in return, they give attention to your message. Call it R.O.A.: return on attention. Thanks for yours.




Stop moaning about the brief and start creating

Briefs. They are always too long. Unless they are too, well, brief. They contain too much information. Or too little. The client hasn’t made any choices. Or they’ve made the wrong ones. Briefs are too directive. Or they lack direction. Which all means you can’t get to work. Because all great ideas start with a great brief.

Except they don’t.

The team who came up with that brilliant ad you love? Chances are their brief was no better than the one on your desk today*. Artists from Bowie to Banksy were pretty creative without any brief. So stop moaning, even though you might be right. Say the client had a perfect product, a real USP and a brilliantly positioned brand. Then what would they need creatives for? Exactly. Now stop reading this post and start creating.

*I heard that the team who did “I’m on a horse” for Old Spice got a brief that said “we need a man speaking and looking at the viewer because research shows this works best”. What would YOU have done with that one?

Don’t spot trends, start them

In advertising and design, we have many trends. And people who make a living spotting them. Trouble is, once it’s a trend it’s no longer new. So while one new idea might inspire the next, a trend does the opposite. Trendspotting stifles creativity. Because following trends is about getting it right. Following the new rules. And being creative is about daring to be wrong, rules be damned.

Of course, trendspotters will tell you that whoever’s not on trend is behind the times. In fact, the opposite is true. Following a trend by definition means you’re behind. It’s the only place you can follow from. Yes, a trend may contain a great idea. But someone else has already had it. So move on. Try to come up with the next thing. And don’t worry if you don’t succeed. It’s more creative to fail at setting a trend, then to succeed at following it.


Embrace yuor mistakes

Sometimes the right idea comes from doing it wrong. A slip of the pen. A misheard remark from your partner. Happy accident or your creative subconcious speaking? Who knows. Who cares. Miles Davis used to say mistakes are a part of jazz. The Japanse even have the term wabi-sabi which denotes the perfection of imperfection. In any case, getting every detail just right is a sure-fire way to ruin the whole. Perfection is often boring. So at the very least, getting it wrong will get yuo noticed. (See?) At best, your mistake might be better than any ‘right’ idea you could come up with.



A cliché is a truth in need of a remix

Great creative ideas speak to a a basic human truth. One problem about basic human truths though. New ones don’t come around that often. Maybe never. We fall in love, care for our families and wish we could live forever. Truths that inspired our ancestors to come up with some cool ideas. Like the wheel, fire and the Fender Stratocaster. They’re also behind a thousand bad sitcoms, trite romcoms and boring marcoms. The truths are like a great song you’ve heard too many times. You simply stop paying attention. Until a great cover, live version or remix comes along and lets you experience the song as new. And our brains get the double satisfaction of the surprising and the familiar. That’s our job as creatives. So get mixing.


Why science can’t create ideas

Science is amazing. Neuroscience especially. It tells us how our brains work. Why we do what we do. Or don’t. Stuff we don’t even know ourselves. Science also confirms what artists have always known. That people are living, breathing paradoxes. At the same time, different parts of our brains are responding to different things. So we like familiar stuff. But we give our attention to new stuff. We’re built to follow the herd. But we also feel a deep need to be unique. We hate being told what to do. But if you tell us in the right way, we’ll do it. So it’s only logical that science will never give us the magic formula for creative ideas. Because science makes sense. And people don’t.



When less is less

Sure, less is more. But less of what exactly? Surely not less recognizability in the artwork. Or less emotion in the photography. Or less personality in the copy. Less is only more when it means: less clutter. Our brains love stuff that’s easy to process. So much, that we tend to feel happy when something’s straightforward. But only if we choose to pay attention to it at all. Which happens when something is novel, unusual, surprising, interesting. Otherwise, less is just less. The result is creative work that shouts for us to pay attention. But has nothing to say when we do. That’s not keeping it simple. That’s just stupid.