The fuel for ideas, change, growth. Not in the narrow sense of well-designed words and pictures (the work of ‘creatives’), but in the broader sense of having ideas and making them real (the work of ‘creators’).

In our own ways, we’re all swapping creativity for profit, for impact and for joy. People buy our ideas and things, what we put out into the world is what changes it. 

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in creative agencies, where creativity is practically currency. Within works with agencies to help them develop cultures that create the conditions for creativity, as a way to grow.

And a couple of weeks ago we tempted six of them into a room - mainly using bacon as bait - and had a chat about their own cultures of creativity. 

We had perspectives ranging from the big brand and ad worlds of M2M and Initials, to the chilled-out, tech’d-up guys building apps at Kickpush. From co-owned Independents United (making revolutions happen) to Nice and Serious (creating nice things that solve serious issues), to a small phalanx from Stand Agency’s PR division.  

Here’s where we got to.

The two faces of creativity

We had people draw what creativity feels like in their agency today, and how it would feel in an ideal world. The results balanced storm clouds and ominous-looking black holes, with sunshine, progress and smiles. All a bit Jekyll and Hyde…

Rather like profit, creativity feels great when it’s abundant. And awful when it isn’t. Creativity in flow is a blissful, mindful, mindless state. But creativity can also be a spawning ground for fear, insecurity, paralysis. And these are the demons that cost agencies time, morale, trust and - inevitably - dollars.

What’s the cause of the storm clouds? Everything from impatient clients, to the big brother-esque clock on the wall, to the intrinsic fear of failure. So, what to do for agencies, then, seeking a culture that nurtures and supports creativity?

Well, we believe there are two key ingredients to that culture…


Purpose: the reason why we exist, our role in serving the world, why people buy into us.

Purpose supports creativity by giving us meaning. It makes what we do matter, and it means the things we make matter too. When held proudly, it attracts the people with a passion for what we stand for - clients and colleagues alike - who will create with us. 

Tom, Captain of HMS Nice and Serious likens purpose to the keel on his ship. When things tilt in stormy seas (client frenzy, rapid growth, founder emigration), it’s reconnecting with their purpose that pulls them back level.

No one claimed that the purpose of their agency was to deliver maximum output in minimum time. Yet many claimed to sell time to clients, and to have felt the cold shadow of the clock creep across their imagination.

Becky from Stand announced it was time to liberate creativity from the clock, and connect it back to purpose. The group agreed that making purpose visible and liveable in the agency can kick-start creative thinking - forcing us to consider who it’s serving and why. 

Which all sounds great in theory, right? But what about when the pipeline is looking flimsy, or the deadlines are looming large? How do you keep the grip on your purpose firm, rather than reverting to simply getting (sh)it done?

Well, that brought up the second ingredient…


Vulnerability: the permission and courage to truly be ourselves, and be open to uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

Godmother of vulnerability, Brené Brown, describes it as the birthplace of creativity. When we attach to a fear of failure, we stop taking risks. When we feel shame about our ability, we lose the confidence to let our work be seen, or we feel like lay imposters in a creative world. As leaders, when we hold on to ego and fail to open up and admit we're challenged, we strangle the creativity in others. 

A lack of vulnerability in agency culture is what leads to subtle plagues of perfectionism, procrastination and producing the same old stuff. It's what leads to creativity feeling like a scarce resource - the preserve of an elite group of people - rather than abundant, something available to and shared by all. 'If you're alive you're creative', says Elizabeth Gilbert (but it really helps if you're somewhere it feels safe to put yourself out there).

We talked about values - the behaviours that code the culture in an agency - as a place where vulnerability lives or dies. 

David from Independents United talked about how their values - created by the whole organisation - encourage them to ‘dive in’ and ‘do it with love’. It’s guiding a culture where experiments are encouraged, and failure is expected. Alex from M2M talked about breaking down the 'fortress mentality’ and instead, accept doubt and fear - equally applicable in the office and in client relationships. Tom reckons that if we could better understand our clients' struggle with vulnerability, it might soften the spines on the creative feedback we hear and fear.

Purpose + Vulnerability = Authenticity

In the end, cultures with purpose and vulnerability at their heart unlock the holy grail of creativity - authenticity. It's the bravest, rarest, sexiest thing out there today. It’s the source of originality, actual differentiation, and connection.

Purpose keeps us true to who we are, and vulnerability allows us to channel that into how we engage with the world. If that's not the wellspring of real creativity, what is?

Written by Laurie Bennett on Aug 04, 2016