The Business of Creativity

Australians have always been an inventive lot. In the 19th century, our creative thinkers invented the refrigerator, mechanical clippers and the electric drill. More recently, it was the ultrasound scanner, the black box flight recorder and the bionic ear. All have become part of our everyday lives because they solved problems.

Today such creativity is widely sought-after by companies big and small, as they try to grow the bottom lines of their business. Google’s “20 per cent time” program encouraged employees to spend the equivalent of a day a week experimenting with their own ideas. Gmail is its most famous result. Others have used the pressure of limited time as a motivator. The chip that powers most of our mobile phones today was created in such an environment.

Driving a culture of creativity requires a strong intention from a leader and a highly motivated workforce. Startups naturally have these, but they’re scarcer in established businesses. It is essential to reward and recognise team members who demonstrate the required behaviours, as is setting up the right processes and symbols to help them embrace creativity. In US corporates, this has led to the rise of roles such as creative officers and entrepreneurs-in-residence. Global firm Ideo has come up with Design Thinking,  a human-centred approach to helping organisations innovate and grow, while Australian software developers pioneered hackathons to collaborate intensively. Facebook’s “like” button was created during one of these sessions.

Business can learn from the incredible creativity and innovation of the Renaissance. Medici’s leadership brought together the great creative talents of the day - da Vinci and Michelangelo included - to enable creativity to flourish, not only in their art but in their influence over banking, politics, medicine and education.

In the 21st century, every June, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity brings together 9000 marketers and advertising folk to hear the latest theories, and judge the previous year’s most creative campaigns. As in sport, Australia outperforms its larger counterparts. “Earth Hour”, “The Big Ad” for Carlton Draught and “Dumb Ways to Die” have all been rewarded with accolades and have been gamechangers for the brands.

The Bill Gates Foundation has challenged the talents that gather each year at Cannes to solve one of the globe’s biggest problems. Last year it was how to lead the fight against extreme poverty. Any of the attendees may put forward a creative solution. The winner then works with the most highly awarded creative talents from that year’s festival to bring the idea to life, with funding of up to $US1 million.

With a recent study showing that 80 per cent of people in the world’s five largest economies believe that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth, why aren’t more companies investing in creativity? The answer lies in the perceived risk. Creativity is by definition something new and untested. Therefore, unlike other investment decisions, an accurate outcome cannot be predicted based on historical information.

Take the idea of putting people’s names on a Coca-Cola can. It had never been done before. It took courage to recognise the power of the idea. And like many other great Australian ideas, it has now run successfully in more than 50 countries and been recognised at Cannes not just for the idea itself but also for the successful sales results.

The ability to judge a great creative idea in its infancy is a skill that marketers, senior management and boards need to cultivate. They also need to have the courage to believe in the results that can be achieved with something that hasn’t been done before. Organisations championing creativity are better at solving their business problems, adding value to their brands and outperforming their competitors. Companies not tapping into Australia’s top creative thinkers are missing a major opportunity for growth.