Building a Culture of Creativity

March 4, 2016

Editor's Note: Nick Bartle originally published this post on his LinkedIn profile.

Culture is a big deal at LinkedIn. It is a strategic asset we constantly invest in and leverage.

One way we invest in it is through InDays. Each month, we pick a theme that is important to us and for one day that month we invite all of our employees to participate in events that bring that theme to life.

This month, our InDay theme is one that I’m very passionate about: Creativity. I believe that everyone has the capacity to be creative, with practice.

I am not an expert in creativity nor in culture but I have been lucky enough to work with some wildly creative people and in some insanely creative organizations. If you really want the definitive bible on creating a culture of creativity, I suggest you get yourself Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmul which details the journey of Pixar’s culture. What follows are some of the principles I’ve learned over the years that we are putting into practice at LinkedIn, some of which have already influenced our most integrated marketing campaign to date, including our first TV commercial.

Acknowledge the importance of art in science

We are a data-driven company. But I long ago learned from one of the greatest winemakers in Burgundy that data will only take you so far. As a young man, I worked for Frank Grux in the famed village of Puligny Montrachet. He taught me that while science was critical to make wine, there is so much about winemaking that cannot be explained through science. The feel, the terroir, the art of winemaking is what gives wine its magic. To be creative in a data-driven culture, there has to be the acknowledgement of both art and science.

Allow for serendipity

The value of a powerful idea that stops you in your tracks should not be underestimated. I have learned the hard way that a well-planned creative brief is only as good as the work it inspires; no matter how much strategic sense it may make. Our campaign You’re Closer Than You Think was born from such a situation. We came across a story about NASA looking for an astronaut, instantly fell in love with what it communicated and decided to amplify it as loudly and quickly as possible. This story became the creative brief.

Embrace constraints

There is incredible value in allowing constraints to fuel the creative process. Instead of letting limited budget and time hold us back from running a commercial at the Oscars, we leaned into these constraints. When NASA, a terrific partner, was willing to not only provide us with still photography in support of the story but had also opened up their video library, we were able to produce a beautiful piece of film for a fraction of the cost of any other advertiser in the event. And when your CEO has the quality of tenor that our Jeff Weiner has, you can afford to get world class talent for no money. For more on creating beauty from constraints, I recommend the book Beautiful Constraints by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden.

Lead with purpose

Having a deep understanding and a personal connection to a company’s purpose allows people to create manifestations of that purpose quickly and authentically. In 2008, I worked at BBDO for Starbucks. Howard Schultz had just returned as CEO and weeks later the economy collapsed. Starbucks, and specifically the $4 latte, became the poster child for the irresponsible excess that had got us into this mess. Not only was Starbucks expensive it was also seen as a giant, inhuman conglomerate. Not the best positioning going into a recession! Working directly with Howard, we developed a simple yet surprising strategy. It was no good pretending it wasn’t expensive nor would it be credible to pretend Starbucks was not big. The answer was to go back to the purpose and show the world why it was a good thing to have a company with that purpose at this scale. Community is one thing that the world could do with a lot more of, especially during hard times. So that became the communication plan. Show how community at scale can do things that are great. It was an election year and the first creative idea was to celebrate perhaps the single most important communal action in this country: voting. Starbucks went on to raise money for World Aids Day, facilitate volunteering and many other community actions that continue to this day.

Practice the discipline of radical simplicity

One of the most creative people I ever worked with was David Lubars, Chief Creative Officer of BBDO. He suffers from attention deficit disorder but happily sees it as a huge asset, describing his attention span as somewhat greater than most consumers have when it comes to marketing. His definition of a great idea is one “so big you can text it.” While working with him, I got into the habit of texting him the brief. It helped hone the idea down to its simplest possible form.

Make people feel something

The philosopher Eric Hoffer once said that at the heart of every successful movement was a “soul stirring spectacular communal undertaking.” Now there is a phrase packed with insight. The critic in all of us tends to judge creative rationally, but we have to allow ourselves to have an emotional response to work. This should not replace a rational discussion but emotion should carry equal weight. One of the most memorable Apple ads from the last few years was the ‘Misunderstood’ Christmas ad from 2013. It was a risky topic for Apple to tackle, the isolation that technology can create, but the pure emotion of the story trumped everything.

Let yourself be inspired

By way of showing how these (and other) principles are beginning to impact how we work at LinkedIn, I wanted to share a piece that an internal team (Will Miller, Hasan Ahmed and Seth DeGarmo) produced. This team had been asked to recreate an amazing photograph for our print campaign. While NASA had been a wonderful partner in the development of the TV spot, they did not want individual astronauts to be identifiable. Fair enough. But we had fallen in love with an image and while we didn’t want to do a carbon copy, we did want to capture the emotion we all felt when we saw that original image. A hard enough brief for any photographer. Not only did the team return with an awesome photo that became the hero image of our print work, they came back with a video that we all just fell in love with featuring music by The Tempers. It was created not because there was a brief, nor even a need, but because the team was inspired.

It is simple. It is beautiful. It reflects our purpose. It creates an emotion. This is what happens when organizations foster a culture of creativity.

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