How Marketers Can Be More Creative

Emmanuel ProbstFebruary 2, 20233 min

Conventional wisdom suggests that true creators come up with novel ideas in sparks of genius. Many people don’t see themselves as artists or creators or doubt their creative abilities because they believe that artists constantly reinvent the wheel.
In reality, most movies, songs, paintings, products, and books are inspired and informed by the work of other creators. They are “remixes”: their creators collect, combine, edit, and rearrange existing materials to produce something new. Creating something new from something old has never been easier—digital media enables us to source, curate, and remix ideas from all over the world in seconds. Ultimately, very few creations are truly seminal, and marketing is no exception. Does this matter?

When done ethically, a remix credits the work of other contributors (my new book, Assemblage includes well over 200 references). Also, remixing enriches existing work. Finally, drawing from existing music, books, and movies prompts familiar, positive emotions and recontextualizes them for the audience.

Steve Jobs, seen by many as the greatest inventor and entrepreneur of our time, freely admitted to being “shameless about stealing great ideas.”

It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done. And then try to bring these things into what you are doing […] we always have been shameless about stealing great ideas. — Steve Jobs

Copy / Transform / Combine

George Lucas, Led Zeppelin, and Steve Jobs are geniuses that brought us Star Wars, Stairway to Heaven, and the Apple Macintosh. Or did they? Star Wars was based on The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book by Joseph Campbell. Stairway to Heaven’s famous opening is heavily inspired by Spirit’s 1968 Taurus, and Apple’s mouse came from Xerox.

I spoke with filmmaker Kirby Ferguson who popularized the “copy/transform/combine” process. Ferguson argues that this is a consistent pattern and the formula for innovation. As such, the typewriter is modeled upon a piano; rock and roll is a transformation of the American blues.

Copy: Copying requires people to be curious, open to a wide range of influences, and select the ones that feel most promising and unfamiliar. To copy, you must gather disparate raw materials and revisit them several times to tease out a pattern or something intriguing you can expand upon.

Transform: Transforming involves creating variations of these raw materials and influences. Ferguson describes the process of transformation as gradual modifications. To transform, Ferguson experiments with associating disparate ideas and making creative leaps.

Combine: This last step of the process is about connecting and merging multiple ideas in a new and creative way. What is most compelling and yields the best results is the combination of ideas, products, or people that don’t intuitively fit together. In advertising, examples of quirky combinations include Gucci using the vintage aesthetic of a train journey through the Alps, and BIC’s ad featuring rapper Snoop Dog and Martha Stewart.
It’s much easier to improve on somebody else’s idea than it is to create something from scratch.

To be original, you don’t have to be the first, you just have to be different and better. — Adam Grant

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Dr. Emmanuel Probst, excerpted from his book Assemblage: Creating Transformative Brands

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