We work in an industry where the words ‘creativity’, big idea’ and ‘brave’ are bandied about a lot. More recently, we’ve been hearing the notion that there is some existential crisis in our ability to be creative and who should ‘be’ creative.

At a time of what seem like unprecedented challenges for our planet, the country, the high street and our own well-being as individuals, we need creative solutions more than ever. And the key to creativity is curiosity.

Let me give you an example. Last year I needed to lay a new path in my garden. I’d assumed it would be a traditional stone path, but I couldn’t see how I’d get it all done before the rains came.

Then, one free weekend, my wife and I went for a walk in the country. At one point we came across a path of raised railway sleepers lashed together and covered in chicken wire to stop us slipping. The simplicity of this solution sparked an idea involving fence posts, decking boards and postcrete. The following weekend I built an entire path up my garden in two days, at a third of the price I expected, and I now have a unique feature to boot.

If I hadn’t gone for that walk, I wouldn’t have seen something that gave me the stimulus, that made me curious to explore how it might work for me, and so end up with a really creative solution to a looming problem.

Every creative idea needs some form of stimulus to spark that leap from 2+2=4 to 2+2=5. To find these stimuli we need to go for a walk; we need to change our environment; we need to feed our minds with (seemingly) unrelated ingredients. And if exposure to stimuli lies at the heart of any creative project, then we need to be more open, more collaborative and, ultimately, less fearful of exploring things we haven’t done before. We need to develop a culture of curiosity within our businesses.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, two main factors were identified that stifled curiosity:

We have the wrong mindset when it comes to exploring new ideas.

The marketing industry is often described as being ‘fluffy’. There’s a perception that letting curiosity off the leash will lead to a costly mess by slowing down decisions and constantly challenging the status quo.

What the study found was the opposite effect happened if managed properly:

  • Curiosity allowed alternatives to any given problem to be explored, leading to fewer errors
  • Curiosity drove greater innovation
  • Curiosity about other people’s ideas and perspectives helped improve collaboration and reduce conflict

For the leadership team, curiosity promoted sharing information more easily and listening more carefully, which enhanced overall performance. In our research we are certainly seeing that brands and agencies have lost a lot of that culture of curiosity. At a fundamental level, brands are telling us that their agencies are not being curious enough about their business, while agencies say that they no longer have the headroom, which has to be a worrying trend.

Brands, both new and old, are looking at how marketing can help their business but also how and where creative thinking is best deployed; that might just start to redefine marketing itself. Agencies in turn need to involve their clients in creating a focused curiosity agenda to ensure that the right stimuli are feeding the plan.

We seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration.

Part of the blame for this can be traced back to Henry Ford. He successfully identified that there was a market for a ‘car for the masses’ and set about working out how to do that at scale. His obsession with efficiency pretty much wrote the rule book on how to do things at scale; a rule book we still follow today. Unfortunately, he forgot to register the next trend which was that now everyone had a car, they quite liked the idea of having a different one from their neighbour. General Motors spotted this and developed a range of cars which captured the main share of the market and almost did for Mr Ford.

This is a very recognisable scenario today as new start-ups often spot the change in customer need faster than the established brands who have forgotten how to experiment and innovate. Indeed, many a founder story includes that ‘country walk’ moment when they are grabbed by a certain stimulus that is the spark for a business idea.

This is the main reason brands hire external consultancies and agencies; to bring the stimuli to the table and act as counterbalance to the brand’s natural focus on efficiency. However, is there a danger that, as consultancies and agencies have grown through acquisition over the last decade, they too have become overly focused on efficiency and are losing their natural curiosity?

So I believe it’s time for a change in our thinking – in brands and agencies alike. We all need to be brave enough to engender a greater culture of curiosity, to help find the stimuli to spark ideas and deliver the creative solutions our futures depend on.