The Creative Curve with Allen Gannett

Rhea Johnson
Associate Registrar, Recruitment & Admissions
Brescia University
London, CANADA

Creativity and Higher Education: Unleashing your Inner “Creative Genius”
If you missed the 2019 Converge conference, you not only missed a great conference, but a motivating and convincing keynote given by the charismatic Allen Gannett. For those of us that work in higher ed marketing and student recruitment, one might argue having the ability to exercise “creativity” is critical to touch new, harder-to-reach audiences, drive our brand awareness and support institutional enrollment goals. At the same as we face pressure to be more “creative” with our ideas and our marketing plans, we might doubt we have the actual capacity to BE a “creative genius”.

Gannett spoke candidly about our fascination with creative “geniuses” and how we tend to revere them as visionaries who receive ideas through some sort of divine intervention—a “flash of genius” that comes in a dream. Gannett argues in reality, creativity is much more of a “process” that really any of us can participate in, and better yet, be quite successful at. Perhaps we are looking at creativity wrong; Allen argues creativity does not equal productivity (which it’s commonly associated with), it’s actually something deeper and richer. He suggests three actions for us to follow, so that we all may spark our creative energy.

Action 1-Consumption
You cannot be an “expert” or have a game-changing idea about something if you don’t know that “something” inside and out. Consumption, and the act of fully understanding your product—from the best features to the major flaws—is a critical activity to supporting creativity and idea generation. Think about it–some of the most creative geniuses of our time have spent hours “consuming” their own product—and Gannett supports this theory through multiple interviews with some pretty important creative figures. The creator of Netflix estimates, despite his busy schedule, he still watches three hours of television (Netflix we would assume) per day. Even Beethoven practiced piano for three hours a day, seven days a week, with a professional music teacher. We cannot begin to exercise creative thinking if we don’t know our own “product” inside and out.

Action 2- Create opportunities for silence
Turn off your phone and completely disconnect—you will be pleasantly surprised at the ideas that bubble up when you aren’t actually trying to be creative. Gannet had a very scientific explanation related to the biology of our human brains, including scientific research by some well-known doctors (see his book for additional evidence). What is most beneficial for higher ed marketers here is that we should avoid holding out for that “A-Ha” moment—don’t wait for the metaphorical lightning to strike—do something relaxing and turn your brain off. Take a long bath or shower, get outside for a walk with your dog or family—you might be pleasantly surprised at an idea that comes to you at a time you least expect.

Action 3-Engage in “imitation” of the structure of successful work.
This was my favourite “action” suggested by Ganettt. As higher ed marketers, we devote a lot of time to thinking about new, exciting ways to attract attention to our institutions at the same time as engage our target audience. Is it possible we devote too much time trying to completely “reinvent the wheel”—that “lightning strike” genius idea? Perhaps, if we tried to tweak a successful strategy, effort or campaign that worked, we could reduce our efforts and still strike gold. Isn’t imitation the greatest form of flattery?
Gannett spoke about the notion of imitation and how it is rooted in our biological make-up. We crave things that are familiar, but are attracted by what is new or “novel”. It is this balance of “risk versus reward” that as marketers, we need to take advantage of. Strike a balance between what is comfortable, understood and familiar, with what is new, exciting and trendy.

Finally, Gannett spoke of the “sweet spot” or the area in the creative curve that exists between early market introduction (and relative anonymity) but prior to complete market saturation (where your product has lost its novelty). Higher ed marketers need to keep this “sweet spot” in mind and stay nimble so that our institutions remain comfortable for our current audience and community, but include just enough trendy and relevant material to reach new audience members –all the while staying on top of when our “trendy” verges on the point of cliché!

Curious yet? Allen Gannett’s book “The Creative Curve” reads like a great conversation—I highly recommend picking it up and reading in-flight en-route to your next marketing conference. I wouldn’t be surprised if you land with a newfound appreciation of your own creative capacity and be inspired to revisit the creative process that your own marketing, recruitment and communications team follow. You are already surrounded by many creative geniuses—now your biggest challenge will be putting all the amazing ideas to work!