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Media-Neutral Creativity

These days we hear quite a lot about “media-neutral communications planning” in marketing. Agencies such as Monkey and Naked have built their business on the insight that it’s no longer enough to think of marketing in terms of TV ads or poster campaigns; marketers need to adopt a “media-neutral” creative mindset when considering where, when and how to approach potential customers.

I want to consider another type of [tag]media-neutral creativity[/tag] by suggesting that there are patterns of thinking, action and communication that are common to all creative media. This media-neutral creativity is critical to success in the creative industries, yet its development is often neglected in favour of media-specific technical training.

Quite rightly, experienced creatives and artists take a lot of professional pride in their specialist skills and knowledge. These tools make them extremely valuable as specialists, whether they work alone or as part of a team.

In my own medium, poetry, I know the importance of reading and re-reading the works of past masters and contemporary poets; of understanding the history of different forms and styles; and of gaining familiarity with the tools of rhyme, metre, rhythm, syntax, alliteration, assonance and diction.

But there’s only so far technical knowledge will take you. At a certain point you have to ‘let go’ of the handrail of tradition and create your own style.

And at this point, all artists and creatives start to look the same.

What all creative professionals have in common
We are all trying to tap into our imagination and surprise ourselves with something new. We love getting caught up in the excitement of a breakthrough. We don’t mind difficulty or long hours, as long as we have a chance of creating something outstanding.

Sometimes we get frustrated by a creative block, or someone else not “getting” our vision. We have days when we are dissatisfied with everything we’ve ever done, and want to start again from scratch.

We’re fascinated by the challenge of the work itself, and follow the will-o-the-wisp of inspiration wherever we glimpse it.

We are all working with the same equipment – a human body – trying to get into the right state of mind for the ideas and inspiration to flow.

We use similar tricks and techniques for doing this – the favourite desk or cafe; the little pre-work rituals; lucky gonks or pens; a coffee break or a walk in the park; trips to the shops or gallery; a game of squash; meditation; conversation or solitude; early mornings or late nights; background music or silence; cigarettes or alcohol – whatever tempts the Muse to look our way.

The most successful creatives
These are the ones who are best at managing their mental and emotional state, somehow getting themselves in the right frame of mind for working at the peak of their abilities. And not just occasionally, but again and again, to produce consistently excellent work.

Though it’s an ongoing debate whether ‘creativity’ can be taught, I know from my experience as a coach that people can be coached to develop greater influence over their state of mind and body, to access their optimum ‘creative flow’ states more often.

These media-neutral creativity skills ensure that their talent and technical abilities add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

The most successful creative companies
These are the ones that can manage the mental and emotional state of an entire creative team, facilitating individual imagination as well as dynamic interactions between team members.

Many factors influence the media-neutral creativity of a team, including organisational structure, recruitment, job roles and office layout. Yet for me the ‘human factor’ is the most important of all. Good individuals are nothing without effective team communication and collaboration. And this team culture is critically influenced – for better or worse – by the managers.

Most of us can tell a horror story or two about creativity and enthusiasm being crushed by a thoughtless manager. Thankfully there are also plenty of stories about a manager or mentor who has had a profoundly positive effect on a creative individual or team.

For me, the moral of these stories is that whatever approach you take to developing media-neutral creativity in your team, it needs to take account of the huge influence that managers exert, and to ensure that they are skilled at motivating, supporting and inspiring creative professionals.

As a coach I believe coaching has a lot to offer in this respect – but it must be used in a way that is appropriate to each company’s needs. Since we’re talking about creativity, there isn’t be a ‘best way’ of achieving this, let alone a one-size-fits-all approach.

Options for developing media-neutral creativity through coaching include: creatives and managers working with specialist external coaches; training the managers in coaching skills, to maximise the positive impact they have on their teams; or helping managers to develop their own coaching initiative within the company.

What is at stake?
As the creative economy expands and competition inevitably hots up, technical skills will continue to be essential for success, but the really outstanding companies will be the ones who recognise the value of media-neutral creativity and make it a priority to develop it.

Everything else about your company can be copied – a market niche, a funky image, an innovative structure, a new technology or medium, an unusual office or studio design – but not the unique character of your creative thinking.

What does this mean for you?

How does your business depend on media-neutral creativity?

What factors stimulate media-neutral creativity in your team?

What are the things that could kill it?

What are you doing about it?


  1. […] So what can we learn from Heatherwick’s creativity? Clearly, a TV documentary (let alone a blog post) is far too small a space to do justice to such a multifarious imagination, but watching the programme I noticed a few recurring heuristics in Heatherwick’s creative process: Work in any medium I’ve written elsewhere about media-neutral creativity, which Heatherwick takes to astounding new levels. He doesn’t limit himself to the usual categories of ‘designer’, ’sculptor’ or ‘architect’, but applies the same curiosity and formal inventiveness to a mind-boggling array of projects, including a handbag, a gigantic sculpture, a gazebo, a Buddhist temple, a skyscraper a shop or a whole shopping centre. […]

  2. […] I was very pleased by the response to my presentation on creative flow, especially considering the variety of disciplines and industries represented – whatever the medium or working environment, it seems that people have a remarkably similar experience of the state of creative flow. This supports Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s argument for the universality of the flow experience, and my own view that media-neutral creativity is a core discipline across all of the creative industries (and many more besides). […]