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The science of creativity

Opinion, 15 August 2017

Typically, art and science are presented as opposites. But Dentsu Mitchell’s Eaon Pritchard argues that the problem lies with formulas and not with the scientific method, which can inform the creative process just as it informs science, through observations, hypotheses, and experimentation.

There’s a Bill Bernbach quote that appears from time to time.

It’s the one where Bill takes aim at a particular flavour of advertising that was popular in the early 60’s.

“There are a lot great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

When Bernbach goes after ‘science’, I’d propose that he is really offering the ‘creativity’ counter position to the harder selling advertising as championed by the likes of his rival, Rosser Reeves.

Reeves was influenced by the writings of Claude Hopkin who had published a ‘manual’ for this kind of functional approach entitled ‘Scientific Advertising’ and was dismissive of overly creative executions.

Over time Bill’s statement has become contentious, and fuels the continuous Art v Science false dichotomy. As with most dichotomies the truth is more about the entwinement of the two propositions.

I’d argue that when Bill says ‘science’ he really means ‘formulaic’. I’d also argue that Bill himself was more scientific in his approach than the ‘scientists’ that he found irritating.

The Scientific Method is an organised way that helps scientists, strategists or creatives answer a question or begin to solve a problem. 

Start with an observation.

If you’re not naturally curious about the world then you are unlikely to be able to solve problems creatively. Half the battle is just noticing things, saving them for further thought and investigation and connecting them with other things you’ve noticed.

Have an interesting question.

After making an interesting observation, this should next form an interesting question. These kind of questions usually begin with ‘why?’

Now form a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is an informed guess as to the possible answer to the question. The hypothesis may arrive as soon as the question is posed, or it may require a lot of fiddling about. There’s often a few different hypotheses. Another word for this is ‘ideas’.

Conduct experiments.

Ideas must be tested. Bernbach wasn’t a fan of pre-testing. Rightly so, if pre-testing worked then everyone would love all the advertising. The best experiment is putting it out into the world.

Analyse the data and draw a conclusion.

Here’s where we could all do better. We obsess over the wrong data, give disproportionate focus to the insignificant and are distracted by noise. But when we look in the right place then perhaps we have an observation that starts us on the cycle again.

To conclude, Bill Bernbach was as much scientific as creative. The two fields are not incompatible, they are one and the same. Indeed Bill was also something of an intuitive evolutionary psychologist.

‘It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.’

About the author

Eaon Pritchard is Head of Strategy - Government Services, Dentsu Aegis Network, Australia.