Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2017

Fear of creativity

How we can cultivate a culture of fearlessness.

"Right now, on the inside, I am in the foetal position and you don’t know that,” said Joanna Coles, CCO, Hearst Magazines. This is the woman who is Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazines, the first person to hold this position in the company. She was formerly Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire magazines. Coles is also a Snap board member (the company behind Snapchat). She is also the brave woman who admitted to being scared. In my short encounter with her at Cannes Lions’ See it Be It, I thought to myself: “Wow, if this legend is scared, then I should have already fainted.”

This was a moment which is labelled an epiphany; when the fog lifts and for the first time you can see through all the BS and realise that no one knows what is going on and everyone is making it up as they go along.

That is the beauty of creativity. Admitting you don’t know, but you have the attitude to find out.

But why is everybody so scared of being creative?

The simple answer is that we love ourselves too much and the rejection of our ideas is linked to personal rejection. When a client, boss or peer rejects an idea, we feel defeated and unloved. When the idea is approved, we feel validation and love. In a world where research informs us that people are more scared of public speaking than of death itself, it tells us how much we don’t want to be rejected.


Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion, was ridiculed by his peers who declared his ideas to be ludicrous. The New York Times even chimed in with an editorial to the effect that Goddard lacked even a high school understanding of rocket propulsion.


Here is the dilemma. Creativity is all about failing and making mistakes. Mistakes scare us as they lead to rejection; hence we are scared of creativity.

I have often sat in meetings where we presented a groundbreaking idea and no one saw it. It was not only the fact that this groundbreaking idea never saw the light of day; it became a joke during subsequent presentations. This insult to injury leads to a familiar pattern. First you say the client is an idiot. Then you think the team was an idiot not to fight for the idea. Finally comes the harsh reality; you are not good enough – hence you are the idiot. No matter how many years you have under your belt, the cycle of client-cursing and spirit-crushing remains the same. The roommate living in your head tells you to give up and let others do it better. You love a piece of work another creative did and you hate them for it and then you hate yourself for not having come up with it. I am glad to report that I am not the only fool going through this cycle.

I met some remarkable creative gods at Cannes Lions – Gods like Madonna Badger, Susan Credle, David Droga, Kathleen Griffith, Karen Kaplan, Tham Khai Meng and Jim Winters. They all said the same thing: Our fears cripple and define us (although they didn’t all use the same words). They spoke of their own insecurities and walking through hell stories. They were all scared at one time or the other, yet they told the voices in their heads to shut up and put themselves out there. They found strength in being vulnerable and were rejected many times.

The fear of creativity is not limited to advertising. Every industry experiences this outright rejection. Below are a few examples that seem absurd in hindsight.

Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion, was ridiculed by his peers who declared his ideas to be ludicrous. The New York Times even chimed in with an editorial to the effect that Goddard lacked even a high school understanding of rocket propulsion.

Fred Smith’s Yale University management professor gave him a C because his paper on providing an overnight delivery service was not feasible. His paper turned into Federal Express. Incidentally, every delivery expert in the US doomed FedEx to failure; they believed no one would pay a premium for speed and reliability.


Kathleen Griffith told a bunch of scared creatives that the area in our brain that controls fear is the size of an almond. She asked whether they were going to let an almond define their life and legacy.


Steve Jobs attempted unsuccessfully to interest Atari and Hewlett-Packard in his and Steve Wozniak’s PC. As Jobs recounts the story: “We went to Atari and said hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts. What do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary; we’ll come work for you.” Their experts laughed and said no. Then they went to Hewlett-Packard and they said, “hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.”

Advertising is not the only field that is scared of creativity.

Let’s look at the first phase – the client-cursing. A former client gave me honest feedback about this. “The creative director doesn’t have much at stake if the creative idea doesn’t work. The marketing director, on the other hand, doesn’t have the liberty to make art. He/she needs to deliver on results. The marketing and sales heads are always on the tip of the sword and this is the reason they have shorter tenures within companies compared to finance or HR. We know that a marketing head is only as good as his last campaign and most of the time, companies do not have much appetite for failure. If you take too many risks, you take them at the expense of your own job.”

As much as I would have loved to disagree with them, clients perhaps do not deserve the phase of client-cursing. The bitter truth is that head of companies (clients and agencies) hardly give any room for failure. If you don’t serve the purpose assigned to you, your head is served on a platter.

Another interesting question from the client was: “Are agencies open to the idea of accepting failure?” Agencies fire team members who are not liked by clients. Get the concept approved, keep it safe and get it billed, all in a day’s work. The client also asked: “What was the last piece of work you did that you are proud of?” Hmmm. Client-cursing is crossed off my list. First, I need to get my own house in order.

The second phase of thinking that the team should have fought harder brings back similar results of me licking my own wounds. No, I don’t have the right to blame other departments in the agency for my own failure to sell the concept to the client. Yes, we need to understand the objectives of the client, but don’t let other agency departments do your job.

How can we cultivate a culture of fearlessness? Luckily, I have met some Pakistani legends who have been generous in sharing their wisdom. One is our beloved Anwar Rammal. As the former boss of the largest ad agency in Pakistan, Rammal sahab is full of wisdom and his biggest lesson is: “Do the work, and the money will come. If the money doesn’t come even after you do the work, then it was not meant to be. God has taken the responsibility of feeding you, just do the work.”

Fear is our most primal emotion and it has ensured the survival of the human race throughout time and now when the fear of being eaten by a lion has disappeared (at least in some countries), our psychological fears trigger the same fight or flight responses.

Kathleen Griffith told a bunch of scared creatives that the area in our brain that controls fear is the size of an almond. She asked whether they were going to let an almond define their life and legacy.

In a training session once, the trainer asked a simple question: “Are you scared of the client?” We nodded. “Why?” he asked. “The client is only human; he eats and shits like you.”

The trainer was right. What is the client going to do? Fire you? Well, he/she will fire you if that is meant to be. In the meantime, why not do the job minus the fear?

Examples sourced from Scientific American Blog Network and creative thinking.net.

Atiya Zaidi is Executive Creative Director, Synergy Dentsu. atiya.zaidi@synergydentsu.com