The Downside Of Creative Collaboration

There’s so much conversation these days about collaboration. More than ever, creative heads are pushing for more groupthink. Ad agencies are redesigning their creative workspaces into open floor plans to foster cross-pollination of ideas.

They are even using it as a new business sales tool, positioning themselves as highly integrated, multicultural, multinational, multi-disciplined ecosystems that produce more relevant, more inclusive ideas.

This is both true and false.

Collaboration in an initial brainstorm session can indeed inspire more insightful, more inclusive, more relevant ideas. But great ideas are almost never born this way. It’s important to know why.

Truly groundbreaking ideas are spawned in the minds of individuals. They always have been. No committee ever produced anything of real value. That doesn’t mean that collaboration doesn’t serve an important role. It’s absolutely necessary. But not at every stage of the process.

I’ve always advocated for collaboration and collective brainstorming at the beginning of a project, and then collaboration in the executional phase of a project. But unique visions happen in isolation. You might not like to hear it but it’s true.

Think of ideas as colors. Alone, the color red is vibrant, eye-catching, memorable. But mix it with blue and yellow and green and you get the color of mud. Or the color of poop.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. A conversation in a room full of people can help plant the seeds of great ideas. This is when true “cross pollination” happens. But the actual conception of an idea happens afterward, in individual minds. That’s because the best raw ideas are born from a singular vision.

In a perfect world, collaboration would happen at the beginning of a project to serve as an inspirational brainstorming session. Then at the end to serve as an executional operation. But in the middle there must be room for unadulterated, individual expression.

Just think of any innovation, any amazing film, any scientific discovery. Pretty much every game changing idea was born in one person’s head. Most certainly, it was brought to life and often improved with the help of other people who contributed their expertise. But the genesis occurred within the walls of one cranium.

A good example is filmmaking. The best films are born from singular vision and executed by a director who is empowered to make final decisions, despite pressure from outside forces, such as studio executives. Few directors are given such freedom. But when they are, they make movie magic.

In my 20 years working in advertising creative departments, I’ve seen many efforts by well-intentioned agency executives to create a more collaborative creative process, believing that it will generate better ideas. It feels inclusive and gives everybody a warm feeling. But it can be a recipe for mediocre, watered-down work. Ideas by committee are ideas full of compromise.

We need to stop short at disallowing creative teams (or individuals) from working in isolation. Collaboration is great. But it can be an enemy to individual expression—and outright genius—when it’s applied indiscriminately.

The best way to generate great ideas is to give creatives their own space to think and dream. And then empower them with ownership to see their vision through to the end.