On day two of Ad Stars 2015, Matt Eastwood, worldwide chief creative officer, J. Walter Thompson, kicked off his session on 'Curiosity - Not being afraid of being the dumbest person in the room' requesting the audience to imagine a scenario.
"Imagine you're three years old and you're sitting here. You might ask some questions. 'Why is that strange man standing over there?' 'Why is he talking?' 'Why does he have those glasses?' And you would be right to ask all those questions. We ask questions to understand things. A three-year-old wants to know what you know. They keep growing, they're figuring things out and they ask lots and lots of questions. Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. We wouldn't be where we are without it. We have thumbs, we walk upright, we talk, we're conscious of our being, but I believe more than all of that curiosity is the one thing that makes us human."
He added that every single piece of knowledge, technology, culture, every dish served, every bag recycled, every machine, every city, every journey that we make or experience, is the result of questions.
"Questions start by probing the world and then they're built on. One question leads to a whole series of other questions which in turn leads to more questions. It's how (science and) medicine evolves, and it's the engine of the business of advertising," he explained.
Eastwood touched upon the part curiosity plays in a creative process, or rather the part it should play: "For me, curiosity is the best part of doing what I do. Curiosity is the best way to approach almost everything I face, from daily client challenges, to in-house projects, even a short walk through the agency can be a fascinating experience that helps you understand better."
He spoke about 'Curiosity Sessions' which he has been conducting for ten years. Guests are invited to talk to the agency about what they do. He cited one particular session, that with Illustrator, graphic designer and author, Christoph Niemann, to highlight the way he approaches creativity. Eastwood described the interaction with Niemann.as something that taught him 'to look at world differently.' Some examples of Niemann's work that Eastwood shared were 'Pollock Panda', 'T-Rex', and 'Headphone Gorilla'.
Ta No Mapa!
Elaborating on how always asking questions lends itself to advertising, Eastwood spoke about J. Walter Thompson Brazil's 'Ta No Mapa!' campaign which was effected to help a local charity, Afroreggae. "Sometimes you just have to ask something that you don't know anything about and you have to fearlessly approach the void. And that's why we did 'Ta No Mapa', which is a fantastic example of what curiosity can do."
"These are 30 million people and we didn't even know the streets that they lived on, even ambulances couldn't find them. We asked fundamental questions like, 'Where do you live?', 'What's it like there?' and then we set about finding answers. What was literally dark on the map became lit up and because of that possibility arose. And this is what curiosity does, it probes the darkness and discovers light. The minute light falls in you find massive opportunities," he added.
Lux - Perfume Portraits
His next example was from India, a campaign for Lux. "The next piece, from Mumbai, is about one person's curiosity about the world."
The chief creative officer explained in context: "What's exciting about this is how simple the main question is: 'What if the blind could see?' Yet, it is a difficult question for a grown up to ask. We might worry that our question offends, we might hesitate before asking it, and we might settle for not knowing. And not knowing can be sad because what if what we find out turns out to be beautiful. This raises a question, 'Why does curiosity stop when we're older? Why can't I approach the world with the same curiosity as a child? Maybe because we think, 'I'm a boss', 'I'm an authority' and then there are reasons I don't talk about as much and that's fear. Fear is being vulnerable and admitting that I don't know something, which is why many of us just sit on our hands, we act like we understand when in fact we don't. The result then, is that we miss things. We have opportunities for those who are curious."
He next cited an initiative for Tim Horton's in Canada which was conducted leveraging on the curiosity of consumers. "We ran an experiment in Canada. Basically, we did something just unusual enough for the curious ones."
While weaving curiosity into one's way of approaching a creative idea sounds simple enough, Eastwood reflected on the position curiosity currently enjoys in offices.
"I can't imagine being more optimistic about our future filled with curiosity. But here's the thing: most companies expect their employees to know all the answers. Especially, they expect their leaders to do the same. We promote the ones who show no sign of doubt. We shy away from those who admit they haven't heard something or simply don't know. So our leadership is filled with people we won't question, people who conform to preset ideas. We skip over those willing to doubt. We cast aside those willing to take risks," he observed.
He added, "The pace has changed now, how can any one person know everything or anything for that matter? What is standard today can be outdated a week from now. Our phones have replaced our computers, our watches are replacing our phones, and our cars are learning to drive themselves. In the face of such steep and dramatic change, what's required is the same innocence and optimism that children have. Children can approach the world even if they haven't seen it. It is because they're hungry. They aren't afraid and that's exactly what the constantly changing world requires – curiosity. It changes the way you see, the way you engage, the way you live."
An attitude that sounds easy enough to be imbibed but it isn't the case, stated the speaker. He said, "Curiosity is not easy. For most of us, curiosity requires something very, very atypical, something we've been trained against, something we worked hard not to be, something frighteningly simple. To be dumb. Be the dumbest person in the room, be ignorant, know nothing. Ignorance is the foundation of learning. It takes courage to be stupid."
While on an individual level, the ways to incorporate a curious outlook into our work personality may vary, Eastwood suggested a base agencies can start off from. "Let's hire people who are different from us and learn as much as we can. Let's visit countries that we ordinarily wouldn't, take roads that you normally wouldn't. Let's be open to all the answers and the surprises the answers bring."
"Let's do this everyday. Because the reward is endless. You'll find a different world. You'll do pioneering work. It is all about finding the person you once were", he surmised.
(The journalist was in Busan on the invitation of Ad Stars and hosted by organisers.)