Britt Nolan is Leo Burnett’s U.S. chief creative officer. (Kristen Norman / Blue Sky)
Giving an advertising art director carte blanche has a similar effect to giving one a blank sheet of paper: It actually can daunt creatives, says Britt Nolan, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett USA in Chicago. That’s why he likes restriction as a tool for innovation and why starting is the most important part of the process.
Q: How do you get people into a creative mindset while also keeping an eye on time, money and staff constraints, and then steer them to something doable?
A: The most important thing is to just start. Creativity is such a momentum process that once you start putting stuff on the wall it starts to feel like you’re doing something. It’s inviting when you see that there’s already energy.
When I meet with a team and we’re not far enough along yet and I can tell there are problems causing a stall, I’ll just say, “Start covering the walls.” There’s nothing worse than a blank wall or a sheet of paper, and you have to get rid of that.
Q: What makes some of the best ideas come at the 11th hour — or after the deadline passed?
A: I’m a big believer in the creative process of start fast and then procrastinate. When you take a breather and stop focusing, that’s when the thing pops in your head. That’s why people get great ideas in the shower.
When you nail it miraculously at the 11th hour, that’s the product of your cadence of the creative process. If you hadn’t started working on it until the 10th hour, you’re not going to have it at the 11th hour. But if you’ve been banging and had the pressure, you’ll get there. The stopping and starting is effective.
Q: Some research points to deprivation as a way to spark ideas. What’s your take on that?
A: Deprivation isn’t a word I would agree with. I think restriction does inspire great creativity. We’re solving business problems with creativity, and what we love is a nice, tight problem. The worst assignment someone in this business can get is “Do the best, most creative business thing you can do for the client.” We have to know what our box is to innovate.
Q: How did you lead your team to the idea for the “Van Gogh’s Bedroom” Airbnb that drew so much attention to the Art Institute?
A: It goes back to my point about having a tight box to work in. When you get the brief for promoting a Van Gogh exhibition, every first 100 ideas are about his ear or his health.
The curator was talking about the places he lived because he moved around a lot. If the exhibition was about understanding how Van Gogh lived, what better way to let people understand where Van Gogh was coming from than to enter his bedroom?
That first idea was “Let’s build Van Gogh’s bedroom and invite social media influencers to stay there and write about it.” When we had the idea to offer it to the public with Airbnb and we worked out that partnership, it really caught fire. Once you made it available to everyone, people all over the world were lining up to stay in that room.
Q: How do you hire for creativity?
A: We’re looking for people that have talent in their craft, for sure, but also curiosity. That makes you think someone is not only seeking out inspiration but is interested in a lot of things. We look for people who are into weird side-hobbies or have taken on passion projects as evidence of those patterns.
We’re looking for people with a point of view. We look for someone with a voice or flavor that feels human in his or her work. The best work in our field feels like it is made by a person and not a company.
Q-and-As are edited for clarity and length.
By Kate MacArthur
Kate MacArthur is a freelance writer.