Creativity. How hungry are you?

Ever eaten chicken feet? You know, the kind they offer at Chinese Dim Sum?

If you have, you’ll know there’s a moment of truth, the first time you try it, that occurs about 10 centimetres from your face. Where that wonderful aroma of star anise and the excitement of trying something new suddenly becomes very real. Tiny little claws and knobbly knuckles real.

It’s at moments like these – because I find myself in these situations regularly – that I wonder who the first person was to eat [insert weird food item] and what was going through their mind.

Imagine, if it’s scary for me – sat in a nice clean restaurant eating a dish that countless others have eaten for countless number of years up to this point – how much more daunting for that very first person who pointed to that wobbly/stinky/chewy/grotesque piece of animal anatomy and said, “yep, I’m gonna have some of that”?

Of course, I almost always come to the same conclusion. It was probably more a case of necessity than curiosity. They had to eat these things or risk starvation.

It was courage born out of desperation.

Do. Or die.

In marketing, we love to talk about ‘courage’ and ‘bravery’. Actually, I wouldn’t say we love to talk about it. We have to talk about it because there’s not enough of it. But why do we need it in the first place?

I like to think of creativity as ‘originality with purpose’. And the purpose of that originality, in the most part, is to act as an amplifier. It amplifies awareness. It amplifies emotion. It’s a very important ingredient in achieving our goals. But that originality, that newness, brings with it a sense of the unknown. And the unknown is scary. Especially for clients whose ‘unknown’ also includes whether they’ll have a job at the end of it all. Hence the need for bravery.

We’re lucky in this industry to have some really great examples of where that bravery has paid off. Wonderful campaigns from VW, Avis and French Connection come to mind. And I’m sure I’ve used them all at various times to help justify edgier work. But a Creative mentioned a quote to me the other day, and it prompted me to rethink the way in which I use these examples.

The quote was from Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Courage is not the absence of fear.” And I thought, wow, what a great point. When we talk about bravery and courage, we need to remember that it’s not about removing fear, it’s about accepting it.

But the quote is actually longer than that. And I find it even more insightful.

The full quote is, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” And that brought the VW, Avis and French Connection campaigns I mentioned into even sharper focus. “Think Small” launched a German car into post-WWII America. “We Try Harder” came from a rental company losing ‘the war with Hertz’. And “FCUK” was run by a clothing brand with their glory days well behind them. In short, they all had one thing in common – it was do or die.

To liken it to that quote, they had something far more important than the fear associated with an incredibly original campaign – they had their very existence at stake. Although it still took incredible bravery to run these campaigns, they were almost compelled to do it.

And so therefore, maybe as examples, it’s wrong of me to think that these will resonate with all clients. Without being faced with similar circumstances, how can I possibly think such extreme examples of bravery will be relevant and motivating? Maybe, as a Creative, I need to be much more appreciative of context.

Of course, if the client is faced with the very real problem that they may soon cease to exist, then there really is no other option. As our Global Creative Chairman Rob Reilly says, “Creativity is the only way to survive.” Accept that fear and do something different, very different, before it’s too late.

But what about those times, and there are plenty of them, where it’s not do or die for a brand? As agencies, we subscribe to Rob Reilly’s view in good times and bad. We strive for originality in everything we do. And I believe that’s exactly right. But for clients who don’t have that very real jeopardy forcing their hand, naturally, it’s somewhat harder to swallow.

Which brings me back to chicken feet.

I didn’t eat those chicken feet out of desperation. No set of circumstances forced me to stay the course in those final 10 centimetres. So why did I do it? And how did I overcome that fear?

The fact it exists on menus all over the world told me there’s a value to it beyond the ability to keep starvation at bay. It has worth. So, quite simply, I closed my eyes and took very small bites.

When it comes to marketing, we don’t need to wait until our businesses are faced with death to choose creativity. But equally, we don’t need to replicate the most extreme examples of bravery in our industry or consider ourselves failures. Creativity’s worth to the marketing mix is apparent at both ends of the spectrum.

Still, it’s those last 10 centimetres that often prove the hardest. But the acceptance that bravery is not the absence of fear, brings with it the opportunity for genuine rewards. So close your eyes and take small bites. Because, trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Written by Vince McSweeney, Chief Creative Officer, McCann