What the Unibeaver Hot Dog Taught Me About Creativity

5 lessons from that thing on my desk

"What's this? I asked with a practiced blend of dread and curiosity, as I pulled a mystery item from my 10-year-old son's backpack. It was wrapped in newspaper and heavy, but on the plus side, didn't seem either alive or rotting.

He smiled proudly. "Open it."

So I did. It was a ceramic … colorful … what the hell was it? Desperate not to crush his enthusiasm for sharing something with me, I yelped, "Cool! What is it?"

"It's a Unibeaver Hot Dog."

It was true that the item had a certain rodent torpedo quality to its somewhat misshapen torso, and a rainbow horn protruding from what I could now clearly see was its skull. And, though legless, it had a flat tail with a deliberate waffle pattern texture, like any animated, clay or stuffed beaver of our dreams. The yellow and red stripes down its "back" were obviously mustard and ketchup trails. Perhaps most creepily incongruous was its smiley clay "O" mouth, recalling Mr. Bill of early Saturday Night Live.

"Wow … it is a Unibeaver Hot Dog," I agreed. "Where did you, um … get the idea?"

He explained that he was just making a beaver, and then decided it needed a horn. Most unicorns have the rainbow theme now, so this beaver would too. Then his friend pointed out that the beaver's back had a unique crease that made it look like a hot dog. He agreed. The ketchup and mustard were added. And lo, the Unibeaver Hot Dog came unto us. 

There seemed to be no reason to go in another direction with his creation, and he was so confident in its right to exist that it broke my heart a little. I imagined him in a roomful of marketing executives whose job is often to find reasons to kill something. It got me pondering the role of creativity, not just in our business but in our lives. If we could all approach assignments, problems and people with the naive enthusiasm and naked optimism that delivered the Unibeaver Hot Dog, how might our perspectives change? How might our work—indeed, our lives—be better?

Here are five lessons I'm taking from the Unibeaver Hot Dog.

Risk ridicule

We've been told that everything you want is on the other side of fear (that's what the refrigerator magnet says). When it comes to pitching an idea, we need to be able to trust ourselves enough to voice it, no matter how crazy it sounds. It would be nice if we could also trust the people in the room to be open, to listen, and to not laugh at us as they begin to list potential reasons for dismissal. But even then, we must bravely put our ideas on the table. Crazy ideas spur discussion, which spurs better ideas. This is how you get closer to the solution.

Don't let established rules govern you

The rules of logic, physics and biology (among other things) dictate the preposterous impossibility of the Unibeaver Hot Dog. Breaking rules is basic tenet of artistry—but in a creative industry, it's equally important. One of the dirty secrets of our business is that many effective campaigns are happy accidents. When you deliver an FTE/NDB (first time ever/never done before) for a client, of course there is risk. But when these ideas succeed, you not only win for your client, you forge a new path from which others can learn. Not your first priority, but it's nice, right? 

Be open to input

How many times have you had a good idea that a colleague (or let's face it, your kid or your neighbor) secretly made better? We can no longer afford to be precious with our work. There is too much at stake. We must deliver creative ideas that deliver results, and to do that requires the best brains working together, challenging each other and firing on all cylinders like a glute in Orangetheory. Ask for input. You can always ignore it if it sucks. 

Ask why not?

Fortunately for my son, there are no real reasons a beaver cannot, in his universe, also be part unicorn and part hot dog. For us, there are usually plenty of arguments for an idea to die before it's fully born. Practice asking "Why not?" Push others around you to do the same. Pretend you are 10 and have not yet experienced the disappointment, cynicism, regret, cruelty and fear of the adult world. Why not? You have nothing to lose. 

Celebrate the unexpected

With technology governing much of our lives and leisure, and the daily prospect of artificial intelligence and virtual realities replacing authentic human experience, it's right to embrace human creativity at its most absurd. Even when it doesn't make sense—especially when it doesn't make sense—there is true value in this journey. Being original is not easy. If it were easy, everyone could do it, not just special people like us.

So when you comment on that thing on my desk, please know it is not a paperweight. It is not a desk toy. It is not my kid's ceramics project gone awry. It is the first ever Unibeaver Hot Dog, in all its unique glory and immortal splendor. May it be so forever. 

Come stroke its horn. Some of that unbridled creativity just might rub off on you.

Tracy McArdle Brady
Tracy McArdle Brady is svp of communications at Hill Holliday.