Be a Sunrise Person, Part 1

Interview with John Hunt, Author of The Art of the Idea
By Vern Burkhardt
"Increased volume rarely marks you as a fresh thinker. Air is stirred, but little energy is released." "Great ideas often come from quiet people who take stimuli from their surroundings, but work in solitude with their mind." (John Hunt)

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You are the Worldwide Creative Director of TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris. Would you tell us about TBWA?

photo of John HuntJohn Hunt: TBWA is a worldwide agency that has something like 265 offices in 75 countries around the world. We are the youngest of the "Big Guys," and are about 5th in the world in terms of size.

We pride ourselves on being the "Young Guns", the "ziggers" when everyone is "zagging." We like to say we're the kind of creative place where you can be big, without having to do bad stuff.

VB: The truly creative group.

John Hunt: That's what we would say.

VB: What are your main responsibilities as Worldwide Creative Director, and some of your challenges?

John Hunt: We have great, creative people all over the world; my job is to harness them into a network. More and more, as the world shrinks, our clients are looking for a global solution. They want one big idea that can circulate the world rather than having national 'one-offs.'

Much of my time is spent connecting people from around the world with each other in order to work on these big campaigns, and to present a global view of the brand to their consumers or audiences.

VB: Some of your challenge must be the constant pressure to come up with the next great idea?

John Hunt: It is exactly that, and also the need to be aware of the different nuances in different countries. It means trying to interpret an Indian's point of view to a person in Chicago or Jakarta without the idea being "dummied" down to its lowest common denominator. There is a risk of ending up with a result everyone "likes," but from which all the interesting edges have been removed in the name of not offending anyone.

VB: In 2003 you moved to your New York headquarters, but have since returned to South Africa. Was your return due to a love for South Africa or a desire to leave New York?

John Hunt: I've always loved Africa. The arrangement was I would go to New York for two years and then decide. We had a family meeting after two years to discuss what we would do. It was a close call because we had young children who were moving into the American way of life, and they liked parts of it. But in my heart I am of Africa, even though it's a crazy, mixed-up place.

So, the final decision was to return to Africa. Sometimes we think it was a brilliant decision, and sometimes, 'Hey, maybe we should have stayed in New York.' There's no completely right answer to a question like this.

VB: But on balance, it was the right decision for you and your family?

John Hunt: Yep. I travel a lot. When I'm home I wake up in the morning and realize how much I miss it. South Africa is a melting pot. The country is still being baked. I find it a very creative place to be.

VB: And changing rapidly?

John Hunt: Changing by the hour. You can't even presume that this week will be the same as last week. It's never boring and that keeps you in a nimble state of mind.

VB: Which is exactly the kind of stimulation you need in your creative endeavors.

John Hunt: I think so. It does help, though it can be tiring at times.

VB: You are an award-winning playwright. Would you tell us about the plays you've written, and your award?

John Hunt: My first play, written in 1989, was "Vid-Alex", which is an abbreviation for "Video in Alex." Alexandra is a big ghetto in South Africa.

It was a play against censorship in South Africa. Those were the bad apartheid days. I was friendly with the BBC stringer Francois Marais. He would show me footage he had taken in Soweto, but when I turned on the television the same day I'd see the doctored footage to say the opposite. This gave me the seed of the idea. I was given the Playwright of the Year award for this, my first play.

I've written three or four other plays over the years. From an outsider's point of view the most interesting would probably be ">i?Stand in the Sun." It's about a white guy who runs out of petrol in the ghetto and therefore has to walk through it. It was staged simultaneously in two different venues with two different audiences, each of which reacted differently. One was in the ghetto itself – where the play was set – and the other in the elite part of Johannesburg – where the actor was walking to. The predominantly white audience in the elite venue was sympathetic toward the character lost in the ghetto, while the audience in the ghetto theatre laughed hysterically about this white guy who doesn't know how to work his way through the area. It did pretty well with critics, and got a lot of exposure globally.

VB: The play was understood globally?

John Hunt: The play itself didn't go global but was covered by many international news and magazine programmes, especially CNN. Because it was staged a month before the second free election in South Africa, a number of networks used it as a thread for their "Has South Africa Changed After Five Years Under Democracy" reportage.

VB: "…having an idea is the art of the impossible. You have to dream and then make real something that did not previously exist." Would you elaborate on this?

John Hunt: It sounds strange, but that is how things normally happen. In the book I use the example of taking your dog for a walk and finding it covered in burrs upon your return. You notice the burrs are sticky and find them interesting. If your mind is open to pursue that you end up inventing Velcro. Which is exactly what happened. You have to dream of Velcro. It doesn't yet exist. Until then you can only button or zip your pants.

Often, when you create an idea, you don't just change a category, you create something that just wasn't there before. It may start off seeming impossible, but if you can dream - you can almost dream it into existence.

VB: Is a great idea always a new insight?

John Hunt: No, I don't think so. It can be a substantial insight on something that exists. For example, the wheel has been around for a long time and it has gone through many permutations. I remember when I first started traveling I had a very sore shoulder because I was always carrying my bags. Then suddenly someone thought to put wheels on luggage. Now everyone pulls their luggage. It wasn't a pure new idea; it was a smart way of interpreting what already existed. Wheels on luggage.

People often make money by improving on something that, in principle, is already known or proven. It may not be a new idea; just a new application.

VB: It's often connecting or making linkages between two different things that result in a radical new idea.

John Hunt: Correct. Luggage existed. Wheels existed. You just have to be smart enough to join the dotted line between them.

VB: "If a new idea is worth anything, it should make everyone a little nervous." Why?

John Hunt: If it doesn't then you are probably only dealing with incremental change. It's not necessarily wrong, but more and more these days you have to make a quantum leap if you want to stay with the pace of change.

The ideas that make people nervous are usually the ones that don't have a reference point. That's where the jitters come in. It means you are in new territory.

Conversely, I've often noticed when meetings end with everyone feeling comfortable generally not much that is "new" has been created. You may have pushed a little incremental change but a week later it will probably be overtaken by something else.

VB: You mentioned that the pace of change is escalating – is change going to continue to escalate at an ever faster pace?

John Hunt: That is a good philosophical question, which is asked often. It feels as though we should be careful about change for change's sake, or for the sake of a kind of perpetual motion. We often confuse activity for achievement. But it is difficult to see things slowing down.

I have an interest in a wine business. You would think this is something that is pretty much the "same-old, same-old." But even in this industry everyone is experimenting all the time. Remember those who said the screw cap will never work?

Change now is really just the norm.

VB: You have said that as a result of reviewing notes you kept of your work with clients world-wide you identified 20 observations or patterns explaining why ideas sometimes "float" and sometimes "sink." Were any of the patterns you discovered surprising to you, almost to the point of being eureka moments when you discovered them?

cover of The Art of the IdeaJohn Hunt: I have to be honest – the eureka moment was my discovery that there were patterns. I had been convinced that having an idea was like an intuitive light bulb moment. But there is actually a kind of pattern, a sense of when things will happen and when they won't. As I wrote my observations they almost became common sense, because they happened again and again.

VB: You point out that ideas do not respect hierarchy; they are not the exclusive domain of the senior or important people, the well educated, the experienced, the "creative", or of people of a particular color or country. Does a lack of appreciation for this inhibit good ideas from emerging in many of the organizations with which you work?

John Hunt: Hugely. It is one of the most difficult issues we deal with on a daily basis. The very nature of a hierarchy dictates that the boss or the person at the top of the hierarchy must generate the innovative idea, or must agree with an idea so it can move down the hierarchy to be implemented. This is the old way of thinking.


In my experience it is often younger people, fresher minds that have the new ideas. Yes, that idea might then have to be directed by more experienced heads, but hierarchy for hierarchy's sake no longer works – if it ever did work.

VB: When I talk to people from the Netherlands, for example, they indicate there is much less respect for the hierarchy than, say, in Japan. In your work, do you find that cultural differences determine whether or not employees expect the most senior person to have the most senior ideas?

John Hunt: Correct. There is definitely a cultural bias to all this. In fairness, there are individuals who don't play to the stereotype in their country, but there are cultural imperatives that make it very difficult, in some instances, for a junior member to disagree with a senior member. Unlike in the Netherlands, which is at one end of the continuum, in Japan you just wouldn't do it. It would risk causing a loss of face.

VB: I am sure rigid respect for hierarchy doesn't exist at TWBA.

John Hunt: I hope not. When there are more than two people in a room there will always be some politics, but we have a very flat structure. We're pretty good at putting ideas first, and leaving our egos outside the door.

VB: "We've found all around the world that often younger people have the better ideas." Why do you think this is the case?

John Hunt: I think as you get older, and I acknowledge I'm generalizing, you tend to pattern your thinking on your experience, and therefore your thinking begins to solidify. You've done the same things before and this turns into a kind of individual conventional wisdom. Often, someone with a new idea has barely finished his first sentence describing it when someone says, "I remember we tried that idea four years ago."

This doesn't mean there are no brilliant 85 year olds. There are, but there is a tendency to develop rigid patterns to your thinking.

Experience is a vital and wonderful thing, but if you don't keep having new experiences your thinking begins to atrophy. Your mind begins to close, whereas the younger brain is more of a blank page. Younger people will probably make more mistakes but they will also find the more interesting, new ways ahead because they haven't learned the rules.

VB: The benefits of naiveté.

John Hunt: Absolutely.

Older people who still get it have a child-like naiveté. They've got playfulness in their eyes. They have a light touch. They joke. They are a little mischievous. A person can be 60, 70 or 80 and keep these traits. This is what it's about – being happy and saying, "Let's look at it from a different angle for a change."

VB: So you can train yourself to generate ideas even as you get older by being mischievous and training your brain to be flexible?

John Hunt: No question! It can be as simple as not listening to the same radio station every morning while driving to work. When you go to a restaurant, why not order something you've never tried before? Do you want to go to the same place for a holiday?

Continuing to train your brain can be an ongoing, enjoyable endeavor. When you speak to people who are, no matter what their age, full of life and vigor you will find they are very happy with sampling the smorgasbord of life compared to repeating the same menu. Fun seems to sustain a more vibrant brain.

VB: "The great thing about ideas is taking a complicated thing and making it simple." Does this mean that most ideas start with a simple thought or solution to a problem?

John Hunt: That's an almost impossible question to answer. An idea is a very fragile thing at the start; it sort of floats in it's own soup. Really good idea people know they are onto something before they quite know why. It is a tiny seed, but a fertile brain adds a little piece to it. The development of an idea is very rarely a straight line. It sort of bounces.

As you said in your question, an idea is often hunting down an unanswered solution. I think the brain initially works more like a compass than a road map. As you move along the route defines itself little by little, but you have to take leaps of faith along the way. As I mention in the book, if you bring in the rational approach too early, you kill the new idea.

VB: You mentioned floating in its own soup. Are ideas often just a passing thing that you have to grasp, record, and then work with?

John Hunt: Exactly. Often it's the instant connecting of two completely disparate things, like the invention of Velcro example.

It is being aware, jumping categories, and having the open-mindedness to accept that a great idea might come from anywhere.

VB: "By and large creative people are very simple in the good sense of the word. We want to do great work; we want to have the best results…" In your experience do most creative people want to leave a lasting legacy of their great work?

John Hunt: I suspect so. We're in the ideas business, which, by nature, is a little ephemeral. Ideas can sometimes just blow away, and other times they can last forever.

If you are an architect you build stuff. It's wonderful because you can leave a legacy. For other creative people it is not always easy, but deep down I think all want to leave a legacy.

VB: Over time one's legacy can be forgotten.

John Hunt: Such is life.

VB: "The most empowering thing you can do is have an idea." But it's not empowering if the bureaucracy or sunset people respond negatively.

John Hunt: No, it is not particularly empowering in what I call Stage 2. I think there are two stages to an idea.

Stage 1 is the "eureka" moment, and stage 2 is when it changes the status quo. Sometimes you don't get to stage 2 even with the best idea in the world. But you can go to bed at night saying, "I think that was a great idea." Half of you feels crippled because it went nowhere, while the other half feels at least a little elated. If you have too many ideas that don't go anywhere, you might start thinking you have only bad ideas. But I still believe having lots of ideas is empowering.

There are history-changing ideas, as well as those very simple ones that still make a difference. If you've been married 10 years, and have celebrated all your anniversaries in the same way, an idea to do something different for the 11th might be important. You're not changing the world but you're making yours a little better.

VB: "Most of the world's greatest ideas were first very fragile thoughts." What is the difference between an idea and a thought?

John Hunt: Good question.

I think a thought isn't quite as crystallized as an idea. An idea implies there's a little action attached to it. For me, an idea is probably something that attacks the status quo.

VB: Would you talk about "idea adrenaline?"

John Hunt: This often happens with people who are open-minded, in the same place and have the same goal in mind. It can start from anywhere, someone cracks a joke, or talks about an inspiring movie they saw, and a group feeling begins to develop.

A quarter of an idea appears, which someone then adds to. Slowly, you feel it begin to grow and bounce around the room as people release "idea adrenaline." Provided you don't have any serial naysayers in the room everyone starts contributing. It's a wonderful experience. It's quick, and you ride on the energy.

VB: Does "idea adrenaline" always require two or more people?

John Hunt: I don't think so, but it's easier if you can feed off others. Sometimes you can be inspired and go zigzagging off in your own head.

But in my experience, idea success is increasingly becoming a team sport. You need others to bounce off of and to help refine and polish your idea.

Vern's Note: We will continue next week with our interview with John Hunt, who will talk about the power of silence in growing ideas, honest discussion, the attributes of a good leader, his personal experiences with Nelson Mandela, and much more.

John Hunt's Bio:
John Hunt is the Worldwide Creative Director of TBWA. He cofounded TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris, widely recognized as one of the leading advertising agencies in the world. The agency started in 1983 with the mantra "Life's too short to be mediocre." It has won a number of awards, including International Agency of The Year in 2008.

In 1993 John Hunt was intimately involved in Nelson Mandela's first ANC election campaign. In April 2003 Hunt moved to TBWA's New York headquarters to assume the role of Worldwide Creative Director. His task was to redirect the agency's reputation by celebrating original thinking and groundbreaking ideas. He has helped reshape the network to think less about ads and more about ideas, and make TBWA the vanguard setting the standards of innovation in the industry.

John Hunt is also an award-winning playwright. He was born in Zambia, educated in South Africa, and now lives in Zambia. He is the author of The Art of the Idea: And How it Can change Your Life (2009).

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