“I love fools’ experiments.  I am always making them”
Charles Darwin, 1809-1882

Universal logo for mashups, concept by Zohar Manor-Abel, criticalflare.com
Universal logo for mashups, concept by Zohar Manor-Abel, criticalflare.com

Brokeback to the Future. Must Like Jaws. Google Maps with just about anything. Danger Mouse’s the Grey Album. We just can’t escape mashups. When the very last music track, piece of software, data or film has been spliced with something else to create another new hybrid output, perhaps then, and only then, will the world rest easy.

Or maybe it shouldn’t.  We could look at consumer-orientated mashup culture as just the start of something with even broader application. Taken to an extreme, I’m talking about mashing up entire industries. The marriage or mutation of skill sets inside an industry like marketing & communications, with those on the outside. The sole purpose of the experiment to devise radically new, hybrid forms of creativity.

Industries as diverse as architecture, astrophysics, poetry and genetic engineering are already showing us how it’s done, collaborating and cross-fertilising with each other to evolve.  A BBC podcast not so long ago explored this whole area with almost Darwinian alacrity, a guest on the show summing up his take as follows:

“How do we produce original knowledge? …We no longer need specialist knowledge, but trans-disciplinary creative solutions.”
Andy Miah, editor of ‘Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty’

The implications for creative businesses seem particularly significant. Despite the pride the communications industry has taken historically in its ability to seek inspiration from far & wide, it’s undeniable that large chunks of it currently maintain a pretty insular, closed off existence.

Consider this then a rallying cry to break down the walls, take a step outside and embrace the new forms of creativity that lie waiting for us at the intersections with fields, disciplines & cultures different to our own.

There are of course good reasons why this may not be as easy as it sounds. During a recession most businesses focus inward: attempting to extract maximum value from their significantly reduced resources. Unwritten rules state that the time for exploring new paths is best confined to periods of economic growth when the cost of failure can be more easily written off.  Yet – and I say this knowing none of us needs to hear the words ‘unprecedented’, ‘change’ and ‘profound’ restated together in a sentence any time soon – we can’t let the economic environment disguise or excuse the fact that, without exploring new avenues, the communications industry risks coming out of this recession a lot less fit for natural selection than it went in.

In the fifteenth century we have evidence of the evolutionary path I am advocating here in action.  Described as the ‘Medici Effect‘ by the author Frans Johansson in his 2004 book of the same name, the Medici family’s deliberate removal of the traditional walls separating different fields and cultures is credited with helping to catalyse the Renaissance.  The human psychology behind this is both fascinating and useful, the book itself also well worth the read. However, for our purposes here, I’ve deliberately reduced Johansson’s cogent and nuanced argument into two sentences…as follows: Whilst there are exceptions, most people on the planet develop hard-wired patterns of thought and behaviour (‘associative barriers’) that can hugely inhibit our natural ability to create & innovate. When we’re forced into contact with people who have very different starting points & skill sets to our own, quite simply those barriers to innovation are broken down.

So how might we replicate the Medici’s approach? Here are three initial steps to get us started:

1. Cross-pollinate

“No matter where you work, most of the smart people are somewhere else”
Bill Joy, co-founder, Sun Microsystems

On the surface at least, this seems the simplest, most cost-efficient solution: the idea of collaborating with people within an industry, but outside your own company. Yet partnering someone whose business may overlap with yours is often the toughest and least intuitively comfortable thing to do. As Bill Joy’s statement suggests, the reason we must overcome any residual reluctance to this is the fact that, by definition, it’s increasingly impossible to house everything and everyone you need underneath one roof nowadays, an issue that’s only grown in recent years with the proliferation of technology, mass collaboration and media. This demands we seek out liked-minded companies or individuals and work out a value exchange together. Most recently Rory Sutherland’s inaugural speech as IPA President led with the thought that we are “better together”, announcing the creation of “a cross-disciplinary group to discuss how the different disciplines can work together better as complementary organisations – with a view to growing the value we create overall and the money we earn.”

2. Mutate

“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”
Professor Charles Francis Xavier in X-men (20th Century Fox, 2000)

You don’t have to be an X-Men fan to be familiar with the concept of mutation. Here the opportunity is to mutate creativity with technology. A step on from collaborating or cross-pollinating, it represents a fundamental change in the physical make-up of a team. To alter the very DNA of team structure and process by pairing creative technologists directly with other idea generators. In short, we reinvent the traditional creative team.  This mutation is already underway in many corners, but we could speed it up and see it to completion faster across the industry as a whole.

This doesn’t mean simply hiring people with a deep understanding of the creative implications, opportunities and limitations brought about by technology, but placing them at the absolute heart of a creative business.  I can’t put this better than Randall Rothenberg who, having expressed concern about the hesitancy with which creative technologists are being adopted by agencies, recently declared:

“This evolution of the creative partnership [integrating technologists] is as transformational a moment as was the invention of the copywriter-art director partnership exactly 60 years ago”

3. Diverge

The final approach here is perhaps the most extreme: putting a team of people together with radically divergent starting points. Why not bring in professionals from different industries to change how marketing departments and agencies work from the inside out? What approach would a group of scientists, architects, graffiti artists, industrial designers or hackers adopt to address a marketing challenge?  Grafting their methods & influence into a team will get us to fresher outputs.

As context, it strikes me part of the problem facing marketing is the homogenisation of inputs. It’s often hard to tell the difference in input between team members, particularly when you throw into the mix a client organisation with their own strategists, design directors etc. By all means, let’s collapse departments that no longer require separation, foster hybrid thinkers, but then let’s encourage as much divergent thinking as possible.

This means building some new and different skills into the heart of a team, yes, but it could also mean taking the more extreme approach I describe above.

It’s a major challenge to find examples of our industry doing this well or with any breadth at the moment. When Campaign magazine looked into this in early April this year they reported “the silence was deafening.”  There are some, limited examples of management consultants and psychologists being brought into agencies.  Wieden & Kennedy London also have WK Side, a 3 month placement scheme for recruits from outside the industry.

Inter-industry mashup is easier to find elsewhere.  At the extremes, geneticists experiment by working with artists & designers, poets work alongside astrophysicists.  In each case, overcoming scepticism and creating brand new, hybrid outputs that simply would not have been possible if it had not been for the fresh perspectives afforded by the collision of very different points of view.

To end, what could happen if as an industry we don’t do this? Two things spring immediately to mind.  One, we deepen the risk of our outputs becoming ever more self-referential & stale. Two, teams increasingly become the victims of Group Think, blithely believing we must be right, because we all agree.

Instead, let’s take every possible step to mashup & mutate our teams and approaches.  We would love to know what other people think about this – as always, please comment here and let us know.  For now, I leave the final word to Charles Darwin:

“In the long history of humankind…those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”