Wouter Boon's career journey has taken him from law to advertising to branding and finally strategy. Following a brief stint as marketing director at MTV in New York, today, Wouter works as a brand strategist at Boon Strategy. His interest in creativity, however, never wavered and resulted in a book (‘Defining Creativity’), a podcast (‘Creative Achievers’) and guest lectures at different universities (NYU, Columbia University and Boston University to name but a few). He’s currently working on a second book about innovation, but was happy to sit down and talk about all things creative.
A lot of the people we’ve interviewed so far were asked to give their definition of creativity. Seeing you wrote the book on defining creativity, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
WB: “Creativity is a broad phenomenon and because of that also a bit vague and open to multiple interpretations, depending on the field you work in. In the back of my book, I’ve included some 14 definitions of creativity but the true scientific definition is the creation of something new and valuable. And again, these are somewhat vague terms. Because what is new to me, might not be new to the world at large. And a term like valuable is also open to interpretation. But in general, creativity is all about creating something of value that wasn’t there before.”
"Creativity is all about creating something of value that wasn’t there before."
Could you elaborate on this idea of value?
WB: “Having a creative or new idea is just one part of the equation. You also have to be able to sell your idea. To demonstrate its value. That’s why I believe that creatives should also have sales skills, even though many creatives consider sales a dirty word. But you have to be able to talk about your work enthusiastically and persuasively in different social circles; you can’t be too modest when talking about your work because that’s what increases the perceived value of your creations.”
Speaking of ‘dirty’ words: what role does money play in the creative process? Do you need money to be creative?
WB: “Creativity doesn’t require money. However, if you want to give creative ideas wings you need to convince people of the perceived value of your work. You might be a creative genius but if you, or your ideas, never leave the house to tell people about it, it’s never going to take off.
Creativity requires a certain level of wealth and welfare. When you have to worry about where your next meal will come from, there is less room for creativity.
Money is the oil that keeps the creative machine going. Think of creative cities like Florence or Amsterdam where well-to-do families became patrons of art and innovation and allowed for creative minds to flourish and ideas to be put into action. Just look at the architecture of the time or the statues made by Michelangelo. Someone had to pay for that marble. Someone had to pay for those buildings to be made.
But let’s not forget that these rich patrons had a deep love for art and creativity. Money alone isn’t enough. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between the creative and the patron for it to be a successful collaboration.”
"Creativity requires a certain level of wealth and welfare. When you have to worry about where your next meal will come from, there is less room for creativity."
What other factors make for a successful creative collaboration?
WB “Creativity is very much a communal thing. Even if you’re a loner who prefers writing novels tucked away in some attic room, in the end, you still need a publisher. Or someone who arranges the interviews for you, the book signing sessions, the publicity, etc. Again that’s where the sales aspect comes in.
In order for a creative plan or product to succeed you need to bring different people and skill sets together. Just look at how many people are involved in making a movie. From scriptwriters to set and costume designers. From editors to sound engineers. All those people bring their unique set of talents and skills. And while not everybody involved does something super creative, the whole thing becomes a kind of creative machine. The director heads that machine as the visionary brain, the one that orchestrates the whole operation and heads the entire team.
Making a movie is a creative undertaking but also one that needs to make money. The studio, the investors: they’re not just doing it for the love of movies. They want a return on investment. So there is this inherent tension between commerce and creativity.
The blockbuster is a good example. If a movie is a hit at the box office a sequel is a commercial no-brainer, but when people start milking a product it almost always affects the creative output. Investors want and expect a return on investment and that results in people opting for safe choices, which aren’t pushing the envelope creatively.”
Playing safe, erasing risk: that seems a sure way to kill creativity.
WB: “In brainstorming sessions with companies you tend to see that the bigger the organization, the safer the choices. Here you also see people milking success. Every company was once that young, fresh start-up full of ideas and ambition. But as a business, and the boardroom, grow, they tend to opt for the safe choice. And so the real challenge for companies isn’t coming up with fresh or creative ideas, it’s having the guts to act on them.
When your company or organization is running like a well-oiled machine you don’t really want to mess with that. But while efficiency is great for a company in the short run, it’s creativity that you want in the long run. But that comes with risks attached to it. You have to be open to the process of trial and error, which is inherently intertwined with the creative process. You don’t know the outcome. You don’t know what the return on your investment will be.”
"In order for a creative plan or product to succeed you need to bring different people and skill sets together."
What can a company or organization do to create a climate that is conducive to creativity?
WB: “People need to feel at ease in the place they work and they need to be able to collaborate. But they also need to be able to focus. That’s why you see more hybrid workplaces where you have open-plan layouts, combined with spaces where people can retreat and fully focus.
Speaking of collaboration, if you’re at the head of an organization just make sure that different departments interact with each other. Have them communicate and exchange knowledge. Set up the office in such a way that they have physical encounters, even if it’s just at the water cooler."
Finally, is it just us or is creativity omnipresent nowadays?
WB: “It's difficult to say if there really is more interest in creativity but it certainly is something that’s in the air and a topic of conversation for many people. I think that can be linked to ever-advancing technology. With AI and other automated processes, the question becomes: what is the added value of human beings? In the future, we will have to depend more on our soft skills, including creativity. We, humans, are better able to make disparate connections, and link existing elements that are not obviously matching or not part of the same domain. And thus linking things that no one has ever thought of linking before. AI mostly makes obvious connections, that have been made before in some form or another. Humans are able to zoom in and out and have a wider scope of the world and of culture. And as a result, we’re better able to assess how something will land and whether or not something is of interest to a particular group of people. And that sets us apart from computers. For now at least.”