Interview with Wouter Boon- Author, Defining Creativity
April 8, 2015
Wouter Boon is a strategist based out of Amsterdam, I was fortunate enough to meet him last week at the Dutch Consulate in New York, where he was giving a presentation based on the book, Defining Creativity, published last year.
Wouter spent seven years researching and exploring the topic of creativity from a variety of different angles and perspectives. He’s taken his story on the road and presented his thinking for the likes of BBH, Wieden and Kennedy, Ogilvy One, DDB, Anomaly, Side Lee, Translation and McGarry Bowen.
What follows is the transcript of an email interview, where I asked Wouter about his background, the motivation for the book and what he thinks the implications of his findings are.
1. Briefly describe you background/career to-date?
I studied Law at the University of Amsterdam. The reason is that when I was 18 I didn’t really know what to do with my ‘career’. So, like many other people in the Netherlands, I chose Law as a decent basis to build on. During my studies I specialised in IP law, more specifically trade mark law, which directed me towards an internship at the Trade Mark department of Unilever. At Unilever I discovered that I wanted to work in marketing/ brand management. After my internship – and a trip around the world – I decided to become a lawyer, regardless my ambitions towards marketing. I saw this as a sort of ‘postgraduate’ education – learning to read and write properly. After 2.5 years I knew for sure that I wasn’t real lawyer material. I wanted to work in a more constructive and creative environment. So in 2003 I switched to advertising and quickly found out that strategy was the perfect role for me; it combined my analytical side with my creative side. For 5 years I worked at established agencies like McCann-Erickson and Draftfcb/Lowe to learn the skills. In 2008 I became a freelancer because I wanted to work for smaller and more creative agencies – often not needing a fulltime strategist. This is what I am still doing today. When I started freelancing I had some extra time and started a blog about advertising (Amsterdam Ad Blog) and doing research for ‘Defining Creativity’.
2. What persuaded you to write a book about creativity?
I found it fascinating that our industry and our clients are constantly talking about creativity as a holy grail, but no one can properly explain what it really means. When you ask people, you’ll get a vague answer or they say it’s simply indefinable. That’s where the title of my book comes from; I wanted to define creativity. And not just from one single angle, but from the perspectives of the different scientific fields; evolutionary, biological, sociological, psychological, etc.
3. How did writing a book change your perceptions- what would you change in the way you work as a strategist- based on this learning?
The most important learning I took from writing the book is that our unconscious brain is much more powerful than our conscious brain. I was used to always rationalize my feelings, but nowadays trust on my intuition more strongly. The reason is that intuition is based on knowledge. It’s not some invisible, magical power, but unconsciously built on the knowledge you gather consciously. So, an important part of the creative process happens unconsciously. A creative that works on a problem even continues to work on the problem when unaware of it. For example, when you’re in the subway thinking of something else or even when asleep. This means that it’s good to brief a creative team and brainstorm about it for half an hour or so, already a week before they actually start to work on the project. By doing so the unconscious brain gets a head start and once the team begins to consciously work on the project, they should be able to more quickly come up with results.
4. Where do you think the boundary between strategy and creative lies?
I think the two worlds should overlap. Good strategists are creative, or at least know very well how to inspire creatives. And good creatives are also strategic thinkers; they know they can’t be merely artists since they’re solving their client’s (business) problem. We’re in the business of applied creativity, which means the main difference between the two disciplines is convergent and divergent thinking. The strategist starts with funneling all the relevant knowledge about the client/business/product into a strategy/ key proposition. Then the creatives divergently try to come up with as many creative solutions as possible. Then finally it’s the strategist’s task again to converge these ideas towards the concept that matches best with the brief – naturally in collaboration with the creatives and client.
5. How can a business become more creative?
There are many things companies can do to become more creative; from the organizational structure of a company, to hiring people, to the interior design. At the basis it’s about being open-minded, democratic/horizontal, flexible and communicative. These qualities help companies to see what’s happening beyond their own business (category) and to be inspired by other people, brands and markets with different knowledge bases and skills. It also helps the CEO to be in touch with all the people and departments and all the departments to be connected with each other, so that the managers at the top know exactly what’s happening within and directly outside of the company and where changes need to be made. Being open-minded and flexible (e.g. by hiring employees with very different background and skills) helps companies to innovate and adapt to change, which is essential for survival – just as it is according to Darwin’s laws of evolution.
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