Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Creativity’s biggest lie – Nils Leonard lets rip at Mad//Fest 2024

Mad//Fest is always a great opportunity to get the truth-telling out there and 2024’s event is kicking off no differently. Uncommon’s Nils Leonard took to the stage on the morning of Day 1 to talk creativity… 

“Creativity is a craft where we retreat to an office with a beanbag and expensive coffee. That’s nonsense. [Or] it’s a haircut or neck tattoo. It does so happen a lot of us have those, but that’s not it [either]. And the biggest lie is that you have to be brave to think differently [and] to be creative,” he insists. 

Instead, Leonard suggests, creativity is about survival. “Ask yourself when you’re faced with a risky or creative decision, what are you more afraid of? What will happen if you do it, or if you do nothing?”

Few marketers can afford to do nothing. Leonard’s office wall features a quote from Death of a Salesman – “the woods are burning” – and he repeats it on stage. “Almost everyone we speak to has a version of the woods are burning.” 

The ‘woods’ he says, is the fact that three-quarters of the brands today could vanish “and no-one would give a shit”. Similarly, “people are paying money to avoid what we spend our lives making”. 

Marketers, Leonard feels, spend too much time looking within their categories – who do I compete with, how do I make mine bigger, better, faster. But they don’t realise their relevance outside that category. “You don’t exist in a category, you exist in the world”.

To demonstrate that concept, Leonard explains the ’24-hour suit’. In a project for H&M – whose purpose is arguably to make clothes and sell them, not give them out temporarily for free – the company created a retail scheme around loaning suits to unemployed people going for job interviews for free for a day. The project didn’t take on clothing, it took on unemployment. In explaining this approach to creativity, Leonard says, simply: “the bigger the company, the bigger the fight”.

For those worried that AI will overtake creatives as soon as it figures out how to stop giving people seven figures, Leonard delivers hope. It can’t fuck up. It can’t suffer. It can’t experience heartbreak. “This is where you find the special sauce in what we do”.

But it’s all very well being the creatives, filled to the brim with special sauce. The fact is, they often work for people who go about their lives thoroughly sauceless. 

“It dawned on me – how many of us are dependent on people less ambitious than us to make our dreams come true.”

This is no excuse to fold over and give up. Leonard acknowledges that there will always be someone saying no so you can always tell yourself you’d never get a project funded or you don’t have enough experience. “It’s your body saying ‘this is new’. There’s always a reason to not do something. But doing something always pays back. You’re always going to leave things better than you found them”.