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Is the pressure for a flop-free existence stifling creativity?


A recent Contagious article recommended by the excellent Sarah Firth (thank you Sarah) really, really spoke to me - and others clearly as we’ve been passing it round ever since.


It was a reaction to a recent Nature* article, about the rejection of novel ideas, and how people disagreeing about an idea ultimately makes it seem less attractive.


Turns out many of us are feeling this at the moment, so it was nice to see some science behind it, which should help us see the barriers to accepting (and by that I mean buying) novel ideas, and how we might lift them.


Clearly with any brief, there is almost always a safe route. The PR idea formulas change, but at the moment the classic research-pop-up (and/or) celeb-with-interviews seems the most popular - It’s becoming our ‘float it down the Thames’. Not to say we shouldn’t do those (we all do - they can be excellent) but that there should be plenty of times we don’t.


We laugh about it now, but someone signed off the very first ‘send it down the Thames’ (was it Michael Jackson’s statue? I don’t know I was nine) and it was and is a truly iconic moment, resulting in decades of copycat work. The mark of a great idea.


But how often are we getting Thames-level sign-offs now? And why not?


According to the researchers, the more novel an idea appears, the more discussion it creates, and the less safe it feels. It’s uncertain, different from the templates we’re used to and therefore a high risk.


That’s certainly the feeling out there at the moment. Not to say there aren’t brave people signing off brilliant ideas - there are loads - but the pressure on budgets and the reluctance to risk a flop (when we all know that fear of failure is the death of creativity) feels like it's mounting. 


More often we are being asked for guarantees. How can we be sure of national coverage? What if there’s another big news story? What if someone else gets there first?


I get it, generally we’re talking about huge sums of money, internal pressures and even the reputation of a brand (and certainly our own agencies). But without risk will we ever have a Michael-floating-down-the-Thames moment again?


I was asked recently why, if the idea under discussion was so good, it hadn’t been done before? I found it hard to answer that (please do send me suggestions, I was flummoxed) but I suppose - it probably has, in some way, but if it feels new then definitely let’s do it shall we? WE can be the ones that do it! Was my response. But there it was in the wild - lack of previous template leading to unease.


All I can do is gather my experience, and the years and years of my collective colleague’s experience and tell you this is a risk we would take. It’s a calculated risk, and if it feels excitingly scary then I’m all for it. We like to Hope for Glory, here.


So perhaps the only way to lift the barrier to novel ideas is to not offer the safe route at all? A risk for us, but one that could result in some truly exciting work. Would love to hear your thoughts…


*Source: Johnson, W., Proudfoot, D. Greater variability in judgements of the value of novel ideas. Nat Hum Behav (2024).