How to Keep Business Creative


July 4, 2021


James Greenfield


What does it take to keep creativity flowing through the veins of a business? In his final instalment of this series, Koto's creative director and co-founder, James Greenfield, delves into how to keep the energy in a creative business and explains why it's sometimes necessary to rewrite the storyline.

There comes the point in a great TV series where everything aligns. There's been enough time for the characters to develop and the interplay between them and the story makes brilliant things happen. You finish an episode and instantly want to watch the next, it's addictive. The writers of great shows do their best to keep this going with story twists, introduction of new characters and a freshness to keep the audience engaged and wanting more. The best ones do this for series after series, while others fail to innovate and stagnate, losing the momentum of a promising story. You should think about your business as a show; your team, the characters, and you, the writer. In this piece I'll go over some approaches to keep creativity at the heart of your business and stop you stagnating before you know it.

Why do great companies lose their way?

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Once attributed to Einstein, but now just a floating internet quote, this sums up a lot of businesses well. We live in a time of massive change, yet we gain comfort from consistency and familiarity, from doing something we know, something we enjoy and are good at. So many businesses perish because they don't move with the markets they serve, they fail to innovate and the business of creativity is no different. They rarely go wrong with a bang, but more of a whimper, because it is hard to see things as they are happening and in some cases it’s not that the company did anything wrong, it's more they failed to spot or be able to counteract the innovation of others. 

There’s no doubt it pays to build a process, a formula around the way you work with your team to sell your services or goods. This process will bring efficiency, make selling easier and hopefully generate profits. But efficiency can be the enemy of creativity, chipping away at the thing that made you special in the first place. This formula is when that insanity sets in, because you do the same thing again and again and expect the brilliant difference of creativity to survive. So how do you stop this?

Firstly, don’t let your systems overtake your purpose and to do that is all about leadership and vision. Secondly, move with the market, be aware of what others are doing, how they sell themselves and communicate.

Too many designers think they are above their contemporaries, worried they will copy them or thinking about them wastes their energy, but ignoring a market is a sure path to obscurity.

Lastly, grow and change your team regularly, bring new ideas and new thinking into your business. You need to keep that energy flowing. This could be new people, new techniques or disciplines, new software, anything which pushes you into learning and experimenting.

How do you keep the energy?

You founded your business with blood, sweat and tears, the more you grow and scale the less that energy comes from you, but those in the team around you. That's great, right? You built a business and worked hard for all that time growing it, so you can let others pull the strain? Maybe, but people get comfortable, and with comfort comes a slowing down and with that comes decay and a loss of vision.

To have the best creative business you don't have to be the best creative, but you will need to bring the energy every day.

Be honest with yourself, your co-founders and your senior team about the amount of energy you are willing to put in. I've worked for a number of founders who pulled back, which was fine, but I was left in an unknown situation about the form of the business and what my role was within it. Should I follow their lead and settle into a business that suits them or pick the baton up and push it into new places? I didn’t know and maybe the people that work for or with you don’t either. 

This can be done by moving into a new role, or hiring someone to run the business so you return to more creative matters. There is no set path to success here, but if you find every day a drudge and you’re no longer walking to a studio with positive feelings about the day then you should be thinking about how you’re spending your time, because if you want to keep success then you need to keep energy and to do that you need change. 

How do you know when to change things?

I think a crisis appearing in companies is like changing weather, when the sun is out and everything feels great we don’t expect clouds, but suddenly the sky changes and it’s upon us. To avoid these storms you need to distribute power so it’s not just you looking at the skies ahead. Give power to other people, to put their energy into it, but not just anyone, choose the best and let them disagree with you. As the leader, do people question you? Do they tell you the truth about how you're doing or do you have to go and find that truth?

Conflict can be seen in negative terms far too often, but healthy disagreement is the life blood of creativity. It makes us think more, push ideas and, most importantly, the work better. In the book Conflicted, the author Ian Leslie lays out the distinction between relationship and task conflict. He describes the difference: "Task conflict, even when it is heated, can be collaborative and productive, if the participants care about solving the same problems. Relationship conflict is inherently competitive and uniquely destructive". I am not talking here about arguing for the sake of it, but pushing people to be honest, be frank and talk about the work in a critical way can push it to be better. This makes me think of a quote from Plutarch: “To find fault is easy; to do better may be difficult.”

Creative companies should always be focused on the difficult task of making things better.

For that to happen founders shouldn’t try and control everything. Once established, the role of the founder is to communicate with the team, clients, and partners. To be the writer of the show, making connections, having ideas, both bad and good; to be open to criticism and feedback, but sure in leadership. To do this requires creativity, even if it isn’t making the creative output your business sells.

What if your own creativity isn’t flowing?

Whether elite sportsperson, successful musician or famous film maker, to stay at the top of your game is rare and requires a strong understanding of what drives your own success. If creativity is at the core of your business, then regardless of who you employ, your own creativity needs fuelling. Some champions defy the odds to win title after title, some bands make great music for decades, but we accept this to be the exception to the rule. I think it’s arguable that enjoying something is intertwined with your own creativity. As the writer of your show you want to drive your creativity and not just focus on the actions of your team. Maybe you surround yourself with people that bring fresh thinking, but how can you make sure your inputs are new and engaging? A common thing I hear is a lack of time. Time is the ultimate luxury and we worry about how we spend it, especially in a modern screen-based world, but time on creativity is time well spent, however busy you feel. It could be the input of fresh culture, disconnecting in nature, quality time with family, some well earned peace and quiet. Whatever makes you feel refreshed will benefit you, those around you, and your work.

What if the creativity is gone? 

For all the hustle and strain, being in a creative business should still be enjoyable. If things get terminally bad, no amount of delegation or effort can stop that creative rot. One approach to writing a business plan is starting with how it ends. What is your exit strategy? The theory is if you have a goal in mind then you always have something to work towards, even when the business is matured and grown. It’s a good forcing mechanism to spend time thinking about the demise of the business, even if that is 10-15 years away.

We can be so focused as creatives on starting things, hence the obsession with side projects, but ends are also good.

As humans we often overlook them, and as creatives we barely think about them. The author Joe Macleod gives a good TED talk on ends and our difficult relationships with them. 

One of the tasks we do with our clients at Koto is to ask them to write an obituary of their brand. If we closed the company tomorrow what would it be remembered for? What made it special? It’s a good way of sharpening to think about how things are going right now, even if you aren’t near an end. In classic philosophy there is the phrase “Memento mori” which translates from Latin to 'remember that you [have to] die'). No company is immortal and to acknowledge its finite existence might free you of the illusion that it will last forever. 

When something is going well it’s easy to get caught up in success, to think and hope it may last forever, but almost nothing in life does and that’s fine.

Just remember that for now you are the writer of your own show and if the storyline is going stale then rewrite it and the characters in it. It’s critical to spend your precious time and brain space to stay creative, to fight for the time you need to feed it. All the passion that gets you to make something great can easily be put aside feeding something that grows out of your control. The author Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks states “Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.” Stay creative, keep your passion and one day it may be time to turn the lights off, but for now keep going.

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About the author

James is the Creative Director and Co-Founder of Koto. Leading the strategic and design efforts across three studios, James has led the team working with Airbnb, Coca-Cola and PayPal. James has over 20 years of experience working at some of London’s leading studios, for the world’s biggest brands. He delivers talks globally and writes regularly for Creative Review about all things branding.

Also in this series


How to Keep Business Creative

What does it take to keep creativity flowing through the veins of a business? In his final instalment of this series, Koto's creative director and co-founder James Greenfield delves into how to keep the energy and avoid "creative rot".


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