Pure Creativity vs. Applied Creativity

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, because this blog is all about sharing ‘aha’ moments. And I had one of those moments last year when I was in Montreal visiting the offices of our collaborating agency, Bleublancrouge, an outstanding creative shop. Its CEO, Sébastian Fauré, is one hell of a smart guy, and we were talking about our favorite topic: the nature of creativity.

Seb made a distinction that I had never heard before, but one that made things so much clearer for me: He talked about “pure creativity” vs. “applied creativity”.

In his definition, pure creativity is about the discovery and development of the root “idea” that is at the basis of any groundbreaking brand or campaign. Or really any world-changing innovation or invention. The success of Apple is based on the idea of service to human creativity as beautifully expressed in the iconic “1984” Super Bowl spot. It is the higher order or bigger idea, such as the idea of “Third Place” behind Starbucks, or the idea of “21st Century statement car” behind the Prius. Or even the yin/yang concept of “The Force” that is at the heart of the Star Wars mythology. This is different from the idea of “international and inter-species collaboration as we explore the universe,” which is at the basis of the Star Trek universe.

Pure Creativity can come from anyone, not just the creative agency or creative team. But it does tend to come through people who are deeply thoughtful about what people really need, not what they say they need.

Once that pure creative idea has been established, then it can and should be expressed effectively into the vernacular of the day, through applied creative people. In advertising, great copy writers, art directors, graphic designers and app builders, among others, will be able to take the higher order idea and express it as a touchable, seeable, hearable ad campaign. These are crafts/professions that require years of training and experience. Applied creativity is best given to qualified craftsmen, to use the old vernacular.

Einstein once said that if he had an idea and the mathematics didn’t fit, rather than throwing out the idea, he would throw out the math. He famously ‘outsourced’ a lot of the mathematical proofs for his theories to his talented mathematician friends. Einstein, therefore, played in the realm of Pure Creativity, while eliciting all sorts of help with the Applied Creativity.

But each is dependent on the other, and it would be a mistake to think that Pure Creativity is somehow more ‘important’. Without the skills and judgment of applied creatives, we would never have seen that extraordinary “1984” commercial, or the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” spot. They would simply have been great creative briefs hidden away in a file cabinet somewhere, never to see the light of day.

– W.