Unlock Your Creative Side With 'What If' Thinking

Kari Olivier
Kari Olivier

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inspiring-creativeBack in the day, creatives considered account people as fedora-wearing, walking expense accounts; account people saw creative people as loping budget busters. And tension between the account and creative side of ad agencies simmered hot enough to warrant creative versus account softball tournaments. Fast-forward out of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and both softball and boxing gloves are off. Shrinking budgets and competition have leveled the playing field. Now everyone needs to be on the same team.

The Future Is Driven by Possibility

To be successful, agencies can be neither creative-driven nor account-driven. Instead, agencies need to be possibility driven. That means applying "what if" thinking to client work.

While it seems like smart brainstorming belongs in the creative department, your account people are the first eyes, minds, and ears on the client scene. They get the earliest crack at shaping the work at a high level. Thinking about client work in terms of possibilities is very creative work, and the account side has to own it, too.

In addition, creative strategy happens even before a project manager assigns a deadline, scopes a project, or considers the budget. This strategy happens during the proposal and negotiation phase -- before the creative team gets a green light and maybe even before an account team is assigned. It's essential that everyone is trained in "what if" thinking. Here are four ways to get your entire team -- and maybe even your clients -- to unlock their creative sides.

1) Make space for "what if" thinking.

If you imagine your headspace as real estate, "what if" thinking is an empty apartment, ready to be furnished with ideas. Start with a clear space before realities like budgets and timelines form walls. The ideas that emerge could help you encourage the client to think bigger and grow the business. Even if the ideas are outrageous, you’re showing clients that you are proactively thinking about possibilities for their business. Oftentimes, your vision inspires theirs.

2) Champion your client’s needs.

Merging curiosity with research gives you the intelligence and insight to have meaningful conversations with your client. Read the trade journals your client reads. Find out what matters most to your client. Share insights about your client’s industry and business trends before they do. Inside agency walls, act as your client’s advocate and partner. Put yourself in the client’s shoes.

3) Hear what’s not being said.

Get immersed in what clients are saying -- and not saying. Success is not about listening for the order; it’s about producing a product or service that does the job and delights the client. Sometimes there isn’t a clear idea of what is needed or what will work. That’s when the power of your perspective shines. Remember: You are on the outside looking in. Look for the opportunities no one else sees.

4) Never do the same thing twice.

Congratulations! You and your team just crushed a big project. The results were better than expected, and the client is thrilled. Instead of laurel-resting, return to your "what if" creative space and consider: What can we do differently next time? How can we make this better? Try to avoid thinking in terms of outperforming yourself. Instead, how can you expand on what worked and rework what didn’t? That way, you’re not pumping up the scope of the project but refining what you’ve learned.

Competition Isn't Always a Bad Thing

Encouraging "what if" thinking across creative, account, strategy, project management, and executive teams works for us time and again. We are organized by client and functional teams inside our agency, but we work collaboratively -- not in silos. That’s not to say we wouldn’t take each other on in a softball game or wear fedoras.


Topics: Creativity

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