Ideas don’t grow on trees, but they are a renewable resource

There are only so many good creative ideas in any one person’s brain. So bring in some more brains.


by Steve, VP Strategy

I saw the movie Yesterday, uh, yesterday. (Look, we’re all cloistered at home and I’m out of options). Its conceit is that…something…wipes The Beatles from the memories of everyone on Earth, save for one man, who rockets to fame by playing “Hey Jude,” Let It Be,” and, uh, “Yesterday” as if they were his own.

Setting aside that in Yesterday’s timeline, Ed Sheeran still exists when Sir Paul McCartney doesn’t, the film raises an interesting question about the inevitability and finite nature of creative work. If The Beatles did not exist, wouldn’t Man eventually invent Them?

There are only 12 notes in Western music, and only so many ways to arrange them. Sam Smith had to pay 40% of the royalties from “Stay With Me” to Tom Petty after accidentally writing “I Won’t Back Down.” And it actually probably was an accident! Then there’s “Yesterday” (the song). The most recorded cover of all time shares the same harmonic DNA as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” and a song by my early 2010s rock band, which was less successful than those other acts.

Which brings me to my career in marketing. Just as pop music finds itself inexorably drawn to melodies and chord progressions that just sound good, there are only so many quality creative ideas, period, at least in any one person’s brain.

At Lineage I’ve worked on everything from taglines to feature documentaries. I help develop new service offerings and contribute to solving our clients’ marketing challenges.

In so doing, I certainly re-use—sorry, upcycle—quite a lot of the same ideas. Our Design team creates thousands of graphic assets each year, our Production team hundreds of videos, and they all do it, too.

That’s because we’re all working with a quasi-finite resource: creative capital. It’s a lot like normal capital: we all run out sometimes, and we can’t just print more, Weimar Republic-style, to keep the ideas flowing.

That’s not to say we have a cap on the number of ideas we can each generate in our lifetime. We’re not an alkaline battery, or even a best-in-class Kobalt 24V rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which does eventually die.

But all creators need time to not create. So much of writing and thinking is not writing and not thinking. It’s doing something mindless like updating a spreadsheet, or taking a shower, or quitting while you’re behind. Whatever recharges that battery.

It might just mean sleep; Paul McCartney claims to have literally written “Yesterday” in a dream. But even the fabled flash of genius only happens when you’ve put in so much work that it feels subconscious—when you’ve exhausted your creative capital many times over.

When it comes to marketing work, frustratingly, there’s often no telling how much creative capital a particular task requires. A one-sheeter can take one hour, or one day. “Give me 20 tags by tomorrow morning” only happens to Peggy Olsen on Mad Men. Come morning, most of them suck. (More on Peggy later.)

“Productivity” can mean coming up with fully cooked valuable ideas and approaches. It can mean filling up a page with one word after another. Or it can mean a completely unproductive brainstorming session that unintentionally coaxes a kernel of an idea out of someone else.

This is, of course, to say nothing of more complex projects involving a multidisciplinary team. Designers need time to think about the proper creative approach, to metaphorically or literally wad up a bunch of not-quites and chuck them in a wastebasket. That may be creative capital spent, but it’s not wasted.

And when creative capital runs low, it means you need to find arbitrage opportunities. Does one of your media buyers wear shoes from a brand you’re pitching? Bring them in to read the creative brief. They’ll have something valuable to add, even if they’re not a capital-C Creative. You might wind up with a basket of kisses:

Of course, you can always, you know, hire more people. But most companies can’t afford to splash for a deep bench. The days of a bunch of creatives lounging on couches are long gone. So give the ones on your team the downtime to make the most of their uptime. And invest in discovering what untapped resources you have kicking around. After all, as the most talented character from Yesterday might sing, we get by with a little help from our friends.