Last night I met up with Mark Johnstone, and this morning I find some of the things we talked about are still playing on my mind.

Mark recalled an experiment, where two groups of people were asked to try to memorise a list of ‘nonsense’ words. When it came to the recall test, group A were given the full time allotted, and group B were deliberately interrupted, and the recall section of the experiment for this group was abandoned.

Some time later, these two groups were revisited, and a recall test was completed for both groups.

Group B (the group whose original recall test was interrupted) performed far better, and were able to recall more words than group A.


Well, the theory is, that because group B were interrupted (and their recall test was never completed), somewhere in the background, their brains continued to process and work on recalling those nonsense words.

That same process was not going on in the background for group A. Their recall test was completed, (and so the theory goes), their brains expended no further processing power on the task.

Essentially, group B performed better because even if only on a subconscious level, they didn’t consider the task to be completed.

This morning I recalled a conversation I had with Matt Lindley (who I worked with at Verve) towards the back end of last year. He’d led a round of ideation for a client, and the ideas the team came up with were okay (but only okay), and we decided that we needed to spend some more time on coming up with some stronger concepts.

I remember asking him what he thought went wrong. If my memory serves me correctly, he said something like this:

I feel like maybe we stopped too soon.

We’d all gone away to come up with ideas, then came together to discuss them. I think we thought we’d done enough – we just developed the ideas we had into a presentation – we didn’t try to come up with more ideas – we figured we were done.

Now clearly when it comes to ideation, there needs to be an end point – a point at which you say you’re done – otherwise you’d never actually get around to creating anything. Nevertheless it’s important not to stop too soon.

But still, I wondered if, even on a micro level like this (i.e. a specific round of ideation for a client), does feeling like our work is finished suppress some sort of incredibly useful background process in our brains?

This, in turn, sparked another thought for me.

What’s the difference between those people who are seemingly able to get “good” at coming up with ideas (in this context I’m talking about coming up with ideas for creative pieces which gain links and coverage), and those who aren’t?

Talking to Mark last night, I posited that the best predictor of someone getting “good” at this stuff is simply the desire and drive to do so.

I recalled a conversation with James Barnes (who I also worked with at Verve). Pretty early on (I think it was late in 2016), we had a line manager meeting, and he said something like:

I want to work really hard on coming up with ideas – I want to contribute more successful ideas than anyone else.

I remember thinking at the time: you will then.

Time proved me right – James Barnes indeed contributed more ideas for creative pieces (and more of those pieces were actually made and launched for clients) than anyone else at Verve in 2018.

But how was he able to do that?

I suspect that rather than viewing each individual round of ideation for a client as a discrete piece of work with an end point, instead he viewed those various rounds of ideation as a continuation of work he’d already done.

He was using each round of ideation as an opportunity to build on the things which he’d learned before.

For what it’s worth I think this way too, and, having chatted to Mark last night, he also thinks this way.

The desire to get “good” at this sort of creative work is ongoing.

You’re never “done’.

Somewhere in the recesses of our minds there’s a little process that’s continually ticking away. Perhaps that little process is helping us get a little better all the time without us consciously realising it.

Way back in 1976 or so, Nike ran this advert (created by advertising agency John Brown and Partners):

The copy reads:

Sooner or later the serious runner goes through a special, very personal experience that is unknown to most people.

Some call it euphoria. Others say it’s a new kind of mystical experience that propels you into an elevated state of consciousness.

A flash of joy. A sense of floating as you run. The experience is unique to each of us, but when it happens you break through a barrier that separates you from casual runners. Forever.

And from that point on, there is no finish line. You run for your life. You begin to be addicted to what running gives you.

We at Nike understand that feeling. There is no finish line for us either. We will never stop trying to excel, to produce running shoes that are better and better every year.

Beating the competition is relatively easy. But beating yourself is a never ending commitment.

I’m not much of a runner.

But that advertising copy pretty accurately describes my feelings about creative work.

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