Rockin’​ the Boat: Why It’s an Excellent and Terrible Thing to Do

by | Apr 13, 2023

Creative people in media and marketing spend their days working to disrupt the norm. That’s how attention—which is in scant supply—is won. The information products that we create from the ideas that we generate are meant to be unusual, odd, or even scary to a degree.

The conundrum is presenting these radical-by-design ideas in a light that makes them seem safe. Because, if the ideas seem too far out there, they won’t be adopted. That’s the thinking and it’s often the reality on the ground in far too many business relationships today.

First, Name the Dysfunction

Irrational fear of creativity (and people who do creative things) is a problem for business leaders who want to differentiate their offerings and grow their market share. It’s also a topic my friend Todd Anthony at Pinwheel recently tackled on the agency’s website.

While we humans may delight in creative ideas, we also hate them – especially when we’re asked to support them. Even when the logic behind creative ideas makes perfect sense, research shows that people reject them in favor of known, safe, staid ideas.

In fact, even when someone has explicitly said that they want creative ideas, they still have an unconscious bias against them – associating creative ideas with negative words such as “vomit,” “poison,” and “agony.” A 2012 study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that this unconscious bias against creative ideas also tends to interfere with a person’s ability to even recognize a creative idea when they see one.

Bias against creativity is baked into the way we do business. It’s what the studies reveal and it’s what anyone who sells creative ideas for a living already knows from experience.

And it’s not just creativity that people in every line of work routinely reject, it’s any departure from conformity, any challenge to the status quo. In many business settings, it’s too risky to rock the boat. You might get tossed overboard, and quick.

How to Stop Playing the Same Same Game

Progress relies on innovation, and creative people in business come up with breakthrough ideas all the time. That’s not the hard part. The difficulty is selling the ideas, producing them, and ushering them to life, where they can do some good.

Like most creative professionals, I’ve had my share of struggles bringing big ideas to life and consequently, I’ve learned some lessons along the way.

  1. Don’t take rejection personally: Bias against creativity and new ideas is a universal human problem and not a problem specific to one dim-witted human being who just doesn’t get it.
  2. Everyone wants respect: I used to resent some clients and bosses for their need to be coddled and made to feel important all the time. Now, I see it as utterly human and this makes it easier for me to locate the good in the person.
  3. Be unattached: Ideas are fluid and plentiful, and they come to all. When a particularly good one materializes, what happens? We attempt to capture it, contain it, and make the idea ours. But this possessive posture sets you up for disaster because most good ideas will get tabled for whatever reason.
  4. The magic is in the making: Advertising makers, like filmmakers, winemakers, and so on, love to talk about the importance of craft. Because how an idea gets made and by whom makes all the difference in the quality of the final product.
  5. Healthy teams make it all possible: There is something more important than creative output and the revenue it generates. That something is the healthy team that makes it all possible. Thus, any impediment to healthy teams is a problem in need of immediate attention.
  6. Find your people: Progress in business, education, medicine, law, and/or government requires a team, but not just any team. Only a team of fellow adventurers and pioneers, and people who share in your mission and values, are going to stand on the mountaintop.

As I consider the list above, I see how much weight I’m giving to emotional maturity and intelligence. Advertising, in particular, is a young person’s game but learning to manage all the egos in the room (especially your own), all the various conflicts and tensions, and being able to hear what’s not being said…that kind of mastery takes decades of focused intention and practice.

When you’re ready to run for office, grow a business, or spark a movement, I can help.