Books: People who value novelty above habit

The author focuses more on the nature of creativity than how to manage it, but Tim Lindsay finds inspiring passages.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Managing Creative People: Lessons in leadership for the ideas economy
Gordon Torr
Wiley £24.99

What a strange book. Lots to admire, and even more to disagree with, but it certainly doesn't do what it says on the tin. Gordon Torr sets out to advise us on the management of creative people and raises the expectation that this will be a handy reference for those of us whose job it is to inspire creative people and creative organisations. Instead, he writes a history of thinking on creativity itself, marshalling a wide diversity of largely academic material with considerable skill.

It's a slightly bitter book, as though the author had suffered for his art through long years at the coalface of advertising, working for JWT. He takes random pot-shots at a broad range of targets - George Bush and Tony Blair, corporatespeak and groupthink, brain-stormers and practitioners of something called Corporate Problem Solving, among many more. This tendency to rail at people and things that stand in the way of creativity leads to strange places. The surge in Iraq and the UK's failure to win many advertising awards at Cannes in 2007 don't really belong in the same sentence, or the same argument.

So is it worth it? I struggled at first. Actually, I found something to question on every page. Taken at random: 'Shamans, priests, poets, Giotto, da Vinci and ... advertising people'? Most ad people would be flattered by the inclusion. Marketing people the 'elite stormtroopers of capitalism'? I don't think many investment bankers would agree. 'Process doesn't matter'? Any successful ad agency of the past 30 years would beg to differ. Brunel a greater Briton than Shakespeare? Please ...

But, gradually, you find yourself getting involved. I suppose it helps that one of Torr's central themes - that big organisations stifle the things they value most, innovation and creativity - is an easy one for an advertising person to agree with. However, this is not perhaps what big organisations are for. All enterprises start off different and, unless they're brilliantly led, end up beaten into the same shape as their competitors by the same forces.

It's this that leads to the endless cycle of start-up companies, in any of the 15 fields of endeavour that the author classifies as creative. And it's here that the big companies look for ideas, innovation and creativity. Thank goodness.

Still, the flow of the argument sweeps you along - as it takes in Renaissance Florence, Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory, Koestler, Lockheed's Skunk Works and the internet - towards this rousing conclusion: 'The unfactory is a revolution in the management practice of the creative sector companies, but it is not new. It is based on the way great ideas were generated in the past, in the great cities and the great societies, and the great companies of men and women who valued novelty above habit, who would rather suffer the embarrassment of a risk that failed than the shame of a risk not taken.'

Torr is saying that any attempt to organise creativity is doomed to fail; that the democratic thought that everybody is capable of being creative is both alarming and untrue; that creative people are special - and often borderline psychopaths, existing at the margins of society, excluded and misunderstood; that, finally, creativity has to be helped, nurtured and coaxed in the way it has always been, by people who understand and value it. These people are 'the guardians of the maze' - and include Cosimo de Medici, Charles Saatchi, Alaskan Airlines (it's a long story) and my colleague Reg Lascaris, who, with his creative partner John Hunt, nurtured an agency called TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris into being in 1963.

So, not the handbook on management that the title would have you believe. But readable, provocative and, yes, worthwhile. It's tempting to say that the author is more effective at summarising the history of thinking on creativity than contributing to it, but that would be to ignore some truly inspiring passages; for instance, a terrific putdown of the merely talented, as opposed to the truly creative, in the chapter on the Creative Individual; a rousing celebration of value-led companies; and some great aphorisms that will be stolen.

Give it a try (that's what we ad people call a 'call to action'). It won't tell you how to run your ad agency/music business/games development company/architectural practice. But it will reveal to you why it's so bloody difficult.

- Tim Lindsay is president of TBWA\UK group.

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