5 minutes with Ian Wharton

Ian Wharton currently sits as part of the creative leadership at AKQA and is the author of Spark for the Fire: How Youthful Thinking Unlocks Creativity, through which he advocates youthful creativity. Well known for his short-animated film Solar (2007), he has since received multiple awards and recognition across disciplines. Here we chat to Ian about his views on some of the big questions on the minds of creatives today.

1. What are you most excited about in the industry at the moment?

The influence of young creative talent. As an example, look at the output of last year’s graduating classes of Future Lions. The work has a mix of the illogical and commercially accountable, they are in a state of perpetual education and view their creativity as being wholly transferable. Provide them with opportunity and be rewarded.

2. Do you think we need a newer, better definition of creativity?

The existing definition has everything we need: the use of imagination or original ideas to create something. ‘Imagination and original ideas’ – not repetition, not risk mitigation. ‘To create something’ – reserved for no single discipline, no one industry, no practitioners of specific ability or experience.

3. In a world of routine and sameness, how can we unlock the spark within?

It’s easy to argue that routine is in opposition with creativity. Routine can mean autopilot and energy conservation. There is no taxing mental interrogation of an action or improvement when performed on autopilot. On the other hand, routine creates success when applied with intent. The people who can regularly face the challenge at hand and not surrender to defeat or mediocrity are typically the ones who are celebrated.

4. How can youthful thinking facilitate better creative output?

Youthful thinking is, in part, a willingness to place value in the irrational. One might argue that as we gain experience, seniority, or as we start to become more commissioner than practitioner, rationality and self-control have greater influence on our creativity. Ideas can more easily fall onto formula and precedent. Youthful thinking is a reminder of what is afforded by unpoliced thought.

"Youthful thinking is, in part, a willingness to place value in the irrational. One might argue that as we gain experience, seniority, or as we start to become more commissioner than practitioner"
Ian Wharton

5. What is most mission critical to be focused on now in order to be competitive and relevant going forward?

More than access to capital, geography or operational efficiency, the two most enduring forms of competitive advantage for organisations are creativity and talent. Talent without an environment that supports their ambition and ability is placed into atrophy. A creative environment without enough A-player talent will too frequently meander off-course or be too wildly experimental.

6. What do you think has the biggest negative impact on creative output?

Fear of failure. There are more forces in this world that are bruising to creativity as opposed to nurturing – most of them I believe to be under our control when looked for – but fear of failure is truly debilitating. Thanks to startup memes it’s probably not taken as seriously as it should be.

7. What do boardrooms need to do to encourage innovation?

A priority for talent and creativity notwithstanding, first simply an exercise in definitions. Innovation significantly and continually enhances products or services and usually addresses existing customers in the market. Disruption (which is regularly misused in place of innovation) targets underserved audiences overlooked by incumbents and works its way up to mainstream, taking time to make real impact. Second, a clear system for measurement. This might include: speed to market (how quickly ideas at the top of the funnel get out into the world), production of intellectual property (the rate of filed patents and the licensing of them), a metric such as risk-adjusted net present value (used to estimate success rates of R&D and other risky future cash flows), and the percentage of customers that ‘trade up’ to new products or services.

8. How has the rise of data as a marketing tool changed the process and profile of your creative?

From my perspective, the role of data as a marketing tool affects creative output negatively only when treated like a crystal ball. Advertising is fast becoming one of the most risk-averse industries which relies on the enterprise of creative people, largely in its attempt to impose certainty on creativity.