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The value of creative research

Largely ignored is the vast amount of time (and therefore money) that is applied to researching methods and materials by companies and individuals working in the creative sector. Many firms fail to recognise the value of work not directly applied to the task in hand, such as advertising ideas composed for a client that do not make the final cut for one reason or another.

David Macgregor

[Advertising]

Capturing the creative waste

Much has been written about the need for innovation, particularly research and development, in the New Zealand economy. In most cases the hue and cry pivots on the lack of funding from government and public sources.

But largely ignored is the vast amount of time (and therefore money) that is applied to researching methods and materials by companies and individuals working in the creative sector: advertising, architecture, art, crafts, design, fashion, film, video and photography, software (including games and app development), music, publishing, television and radio. (Rather than the broader idea that creativity can be a part of any enterprise, I like to apply the definition of the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport: “Those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.”)

Within these industries there is a vast amount of energy dedicated to developing The New— say, simulating water in a motion graphics programme (as The Department of Motion Graphics did for the launch of Fonterra’s illfated protein-fortified water brand) or developing packaging that is lighter, stronger or uses less materiel. In most instances these kinds of activity are iterative, applying trial and error to accomplish previously untested outcomes.

Often the time invested by individuals and firms can never be directly recovered from a client’s budget—the work is simply written off rather than accrued as a business asset. It falls between the cracks.

Many firms fail to recognise the value of work not directly applied to the task in hand, such as advertising ideas composed for a client that do not make the final cut for one reason or another. Often the discarded ideas are simply forgotten or, at best, relegated to a bottom drawer in the hopes of reviving them for another client.

Often the discarded ideas are simply forgotten or, at best, relegated to a bottom drawer in the hopes of reviving them for another client

How many advertising or design firms save workings and iterations in databases for future reference? In my own firm nothing is ever wasted—ideas that don’t fly today might well resurface later, waiting for the right technology or shift in the market—but there is no formal system or database that stores concepts as business assets.

Perhaps we can learn something from science and industry about leveraging byproducts. Businesses that engage highly creative individuals should be more rigorous about recording and storing their ideas, developing systematic processes for creating and evaluating work rather than assuming that creative work means a flash of inspired genius or a visit from The Muses. In my own experience that’s rarely been the case. A single idea is usually the result of trying many different directions or variations of a theme.

Years ago, feted Australian creative director Simon Reynolds insisted his creative teams come up with dozens of ideas before presenting their recommendations, during which their workings and discarded concepts were also evaluated (sometimes we can’t see gems, or fall in love with one concept rather than a better one). As a result, his agency was not only highly productive but also highly regarded for the quality of its output. Likewise the design firm Ideo has very formal processes for experiment, including systematic ideageneration via brainstorming and prototyping.

Developing methodical processes might sound dreary or stultifying, but the opposite is true. Commercially viable ideas—intellectual property— are the result of research and development and not just happy accidents. It’s time we recognised this—not just the legislators and funders but also the very people who do the work.