Colin Lewis: Creativity is just collecting other people’s ideas

A lot of people tell me I am creative and innovative. In general, marketers are supposed to be seen that way, appearing to conjure ideas out of thin air. Perhaps the creative directors I have worked with in agencies do that, but definitely not me.

We have all been seduced by the notion of creativity. Given the number of column inches devoted to creativity in every marketing, advertising and design publication since the year dot, you could argue that it is not something you should really admit. The ‘death of creativity’ is a regular clickbait headline that you will see applied to the analysis of everything from a humble digital banner advertisement to a Hollywood blockbuster.

When others say I am creative, I am really copying, connecting and reassembling ideas and material that I have seen elsewhere: examples, lessons and ‘stuff’ I’ve stored away through the years and am randomly accessing from memory. Or, just as often, I am repackaging and refreshing stories and adapting them to the current situation.

For a long time, I thought that I was a bit of a charlatan who did not know what was going on in the real world of creativity. I felt guilty. The notion of stealing from others is seen as wrong – my primary school teachers once rapped me over the knuckles for peering into another 10-year-old’s copybook.

However, it turns out that I am not alone in this conduct. If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off. I was lucky enough to recently attend a film seminar by director Martin Scorsese, talking about his influences. He played the scenes from his film ‘Goodfellas’ that he copied from the legendary Western ‘The Searchers’ by the even more legendary Hollywood director John Ford.

When I heard this, I felt total relief. Even Noble Prize winner Bob Dylan was accused by Joni Mitchell of being “not authentic at all”. She said: “He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”

Improvisation is harder than it looks

A long time ago, I tried learning jazz piano. I thought jazz pianists basically pulled all their improvisations out of thin air. Wrong. Clark Terry, the legendary jazz trumpeter said that learning jazz can be summed up into three words: imitation, assimilation, innovation. Simple to say, hard to do. Imitating and assimilating Miles Davis note-by-note will not magically turn you into Miles Davis, even if you can play the trumpet lines from Kind of Blue in your sleep.

Another related model is from Steven Johnson, who refers to the concept of the “adjacent possible” in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ to describe how new insights can be generated and potential created when you notice and connect the unlikely.

READ MORE: Colin Lewis – Innovation is the key test of marketers’ competence

The more good ideas we collect, the more we can choose from, so that we are never staring at the blank page. As the amazing artist Austin Kleon, author of ‘Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative’, says: “You are a mashup of what you choose to let into your life.”

I believe in our role as marketers we must be not just interested in marketing and let only marketing into our lives: we have to be obsessively curious about the world. To be a great marketer, you need to have a varied input of ideas, viewpoints, life stories, examples, all the essential raw material poured into our minds. We need to look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else. Why? So, we can assimilate, then innovate – just like Bob, Clark, Miles and Marty.