How To Connect Science and Creativity

Want the bar to yourself at a creative advertising event? Mention science. Creatives of all ages will run like vampires from sunlight. They seem to think science is their kryptonite. Especially once clients ‘get hold of it’.

Then, some neuromarketing researchers claim creative ideas are useless. Just a few rented timeslots on some University’s MRI machine and you’re set. In their minds, this proves the cool kids who went to art school are frauds.

That’s cognitive biases in action.

The creatives cling to the status quo. They have invested time, money, energy and personal credibility in the dogma’s of the creative industry. They battle the safe, rational arguments of clients and account people every day. Talk about escalation of commitment.

The researchers are blinded by innovation. People in marketing often are. Today’s new thing always must kill yesterday’s. Plus as scientists, they’re eager to prove their hyperrational world view.

But wait. Wasn’t creativity about making new connections? And wasn’t science about discovery rather than proving you’re right?

When I studied Dutch Linguistics & Literature, it went without saying that science and art were part of one continuum. One hour we’d be comparing the Wernicke and Broca areas of the brain. The next we’d be discussing the unspoken emotions  in post-war novels. And somewhere in between were Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion.

That’s how I still see it. There’s creativity, and there’s neuroscience and behavioural economics. And where they meet, there’s creative persuasion. Which is what advertising could and should be as we head towards the 2020s

So let me offer three ways to connect science and creativity.

1. Use science as a source of inspiration

For creatives, science shouldn’t mean following linear checklists of proven techniques. I love to read or hear about some research, discuss it with my partner and see where the conversation leads us. Or kick start a creative session by quickly sketching out some scientific insights we might apply. Kryptonite? More like a secret weapon.

2. Use science to understand the creative process

There’s plenty of scientific research into creative processes. And guess what, it pretty much confirms and expands on what creatives have known for decades. Get messy, allow for randomness and happy accidents. Let System 1 do its subconscious work. Tim Harford’s Messy is a brilliant book on this, by an economist no less. Check out the work Srini Pillay too.

3. Use science to explain why creative ideas work

Creative gut instincts can still produce effective ideas. But to get them made in today’s corporate environment you need more. A rationale built on solid science will help convince stakeholders. The Affect heuristic, Attentional bias and the Von Restorff effect are just three scientific insights that show why great creative campaigns have worked in the past.




Review: The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker

A lot is written and said about creative thinking these days. Depending on where you’re standing, creative thinking is either:

  • the only skill that can make you a living after Artificial Intelligence has taken over everything else
  • A commodity you can get for cheap through pitches and crowdsourcing
  • Absolutely vital if we want to solve the world’s many problems
  • No longer needed now that we have programmatic ads and neuromarketing research
  • Something anyone in an organization can do if they follow a few simple steps

And then of course there are people like me, who have the word ‘creative’ on their business cards. My experience is that many people can indeed have ideas. But usually they’re the same ideas. And therefore, not very creative.

Compare it to a cartoonist. Everyone is funny occasionally. Many people can draw. But only a handful of people in the world can draw a funny cartoon six times a week. What makes them different?

Dorte Nielsen and Sarah Thurber have a refreshingly smart yet simple explanation of this in their delightful book The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker: How To Make Connections Others Don’t.

They use the metaphor of the shower and the funnel. First, a creative thinker will generate lots of ideas without to much focus or critical thinking. Nielsen and Thurber liken this to turning on the shower. Then, once the funnel has filled, the ideas are filtered until the best remain.

Sounds familiar? Here’s where it gets really smart. The funnel has to be full before you turn off the shower. Which is exactly my experience. Most people will ‘turn off the shower’ as soon as they have one or two viable ideas.

And they will definitely run for the taps as soon as someone says something silly. “Let’s not get too crazy now, we already have some good ideas!”.

But they don’t. They have some safe, boring, obvious ideas that they’ve lazily fallen in love at first sight with.

I’ve seen countless people go from ‘let’s come up with some great ideas’ to ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ within the hour. Only to be disappointed when they found at least five other companies or colleagues had the same idea, claimed the URL, copyrighted the logo and trademarked the pay-off.

Well at least they’ve learned something. You can’t get from obvious ideas to great ones without travelling through the valley of silly ideas.

But Nielsen and Thurber offer hope for everyone. Based on insights from neuroscience, they explain how new ideas are found by making new connections in the brain.

Sounds theoretical? It isn’t. In fact, this book is filled with fun, practical exercises so approachable I did some with my seven year old daughter, and we had a great time.

And as a creative pro with 20 years experience in creative concepting, I have to say the exercises really work. As management and strategy take up more and more time, there’s a real danger of becoming a bit predictable as a creative director. This book really inspired me to turn on that shower again and let the crazy connections flow.

A die-hard Kindle convert, I’m sometimes a bit bummed by BIS Publishers‘ policy of putting out their excellent books on paper only (I want it NOW dammit, even it’s 2 am!). But I have to say they’ve really gone the extra mile to make the book’s design and inspiring as creative as the content.

In other words: highly recommended reading for both creative professionals and professionals who’d like to be more creative.

Just promise me that from now on, you’ll never again turn off that shower tap too soon.


Behavioural economics explained to creatives

Your brain is a creative team (and art does most of the work)

Let me explain behavioural economics in a way creatives can relate to.

Mr. Kahneman figured out our brains are like a creative team.

One part is like the copywriter. Pretty smart. Analytic. Likes to read. Tends to overthink stuff. Not very fast or efficient. But good to have around.

The other part is like the art director. Intuitive. Emotional. Likes pictures. Lots of experience. Trusts her gut.

Kahneman found out that the art director part of our brain (system 1) does most of the work: about 95%.

She quickly decides what action to take. Then, if necessary, she’ll call on the copywriter part (system 2) to write a clever rationale.

He’ll come up with a story that makes the irrational decision seem rational.

Most of the time, this works very well. But sometimes system 1 makes a mistake and system 2 fails to notice.

When this happens, the brain blindly follows some dumb trend. Overestimates how much it knows. Takes the safe option even though it’s a dumb one. And so on.

In fact, there are over 165 of these different brain bugs and glitches.

And you can use these to your advantage. To change peoples’ behaviour without changing their minds first.

It can even help you sell great ideas to clients.



Well played, National Lottery

I didn’t come up with this, I just found it on Twitter. But I wish I had. See, insights from behavioural economics are often used to optimize. To fine-tune the details. That’s ok. But I love BIG creative ideas built on biases and heuristics. This campaign combines a bunch of them.

First off, I’m reminded of Robert Cialdini’s famous hotel towel experiments. Other people, people like you, in the same spot as you, have done this. The persuasive power of similarity and social proof at work.

Then there’s the survivorship bias. We focus on the 54 times a lottery ticket in this area yielded a big prize. And pay no mind to the thousands if not millions of losing lottery tickets sold in the area through the years.

And then of course, there’s randomness versus luck. We humans don’t get probability and randomness at a deep level. We feel 54 millionaires in one area can’t be a coincidence. Even though it is.

And to top it all off, there’s a witty line. Adding that bit of creative juice that makes the ad distinctive and likeable.

Well played, National Lottery. Well played.

The Perfection Paradox

In business, striving for perfection is the norm.

But achieving it? Very, very rare.

See, striving for perfection paralyses people.

It fosters a culture where pointing out what might be wrong is rewarded.

Presenting something that might be right?

That’s like putting a bull’s eye on your work. And on yourself.

Strangely, in Dutch companies people literally invite each other to ‘shoot at’ their ideas.

The frame: ideas are the enemy. We must attack them.

What comes of this? Usually nothing.

Because finding a far-fetched reason to not do something is like scoring a hattrick in corporate culture.

You get to shine for being smart. No-one has to work hard to make the idea happen. And no money is spent.

It’s loss aversion heaven.

Except that you’re losing a hell of a lot of great opportunities.

So striving for perfection is bad. You know what’s even worse? 

Achieving perfection.

That’s what you discover when you read this interesting piece of research.

Yes, consumers will buy more if you get good reviews. Social proof works.

But here’s the twist …

They’ll buy less if you only get 5-star reviews.

Because perfection is suspicious. It makes us wonder if it’s just a facade, a fraud.


Conversely, admitting a small fault is an effective way to establish liking and credibility. Bernbach knew that when he made his VW ads.






We all subconsciously feel the perfection paradox:

If it’s perfect, there must be something wrong with it.

So forget perfection. Get to work.

Build a minimum viable product, whether that’s a strategy, an app, an ad or a company.

Then ship it, warts and all.

Because perfect just isn’t worth it.




Give me a choice! (but please don’t make me choose)

Choice is a funny thing. Consumers will tell you they want more of it. And get angry when options are taken away. Even ones they never would have used.

Direct marketers have known for a while that ending an offer with “but the choice is yours” increases response.

However, when consumers actually get more options, they often buy less. And feel worse. They suffer from choice paralysis and buyer’s regret.

You see, choice makes us feel like we’re in control. Our brains like that. But choice also gives us responsibility, which we pretty much hate.

In the end, every additional option just increases our chances of screwing up by picking  wrong.

So it’s best to give people some choice, but not too much. And to cluster options: pale ales, lagers, porters. Our brains love categories (even ones that make little sense, as the mere categorization effect shows).

Creative cues can nudge people towards the ‘right’ option. The expert’s choice, our most popular model, the original flavour … there are many ways to signal that yes, the choice is yours … but some options are more equal than others.

And if then the choice is still difficult, simply reframe it through choice substitution. “The question is not which car you want, the question is do you want to love or hate driving to work every day?” People will prefer to answer the easier question and let that guide their choice.

In the 80s, pop group Wham! wore shirts with the slogan “Choose Life”. In two words they took a difficult choice: “Do I spend my allowance on a Wham! LP or one by Culture Club, ABC or Simple Minds?” And substituted it for a much clearer one: do I Choose Life or the alternative? One thing is for sure: they made it big.

What makes an idea great?

Science tells us about an interesting psychological bias. We tend to overestimate how succesful our own ideas will be. On the other side, many creative people suffer from great self-doubt. Most of us probably go back and forth between under- and overrating our own creations.

So how can we tell which of our ideas are truly top notch? Some make lists of criteria. It has to be relevant, impactful and innovative. Or emotional, surprising and engaging. Or …

Others say they recognize a good idea because these always feel uncomfortable at first. Well, so do many terrible ideas. Researchers have tried using questionnaires, focus groups and now brain scans to figure out which ideas will work. With varied results, to say the least.

Personally, I think this is why genius musicians from Bowie and Miles Davis to Childish Gambino and Thundercat work(ed) with producers. And why most great advertising creatives still work in teams. It’s much easier to recognize a great idea if you didn’t have it yourself.

As a creative director, it’s my favorite part of the job. Convincing someone their idea is much better then they realized. Then, of course, begins the hard work of polishing it into a diamond. But that’s a different blog post.