The Secret to Capital-C Creativity Is Fostering Little-C Creativity First

How to inspire your teams to push ideas further

When you think of "creativity," you probably think of exciting innovations or disruptive ideas that fuel long-term competitive advantages, shift paradigms for established businesses, or even create new businesses. In the advertising business, many point to the creative ideas that are hotly debated, like Apple's "1984" ad or Nike's "Dream Crazy" campaign with Colin Kaepernick. 

Early on in my career as a marketer, I thought creativity meant bringing ideas to life through different advertising platforms. Like you, I always thought about the kind of big-idea creative work that grabs people's attention. Nike's ad was polarizing (I loved it!), but it caused you to stop, think and maybe even debate or challenge your own position. And that is exactly what great creativity does—it deepens engagement and challenges the perception of what's possible.

Every ad isn't going to deliver like Apple or Nike, though. The reason, I quickly discovered, is that there are actually two types of creativity: Capital-C Creativity and Little-C Creativity. By understanding how to identify both, you give yourself an extraordinary competitive advantage, no matter your industry.

Capital-C creativity is about opportunity creation. Seeing a problem that needs a new solution or envisioning a need that people don't even know they have. It's transformative—evolving ways of working, inspiring new products, influencing culture, and capturing hearts and minds. Today, Capital-C Creativity has never been more important.

One example I point to frequently is American Express's Small Business Saturday campaign. AmEx conceptualized the effort to encourage small businesses to accept their card as a form of payment more readily. It quickly became a platform business owners and consumers everywhere embraced and it positioned AmEx as a thoughtful brand doing something good for the little guys. Thousands of small businesses participated, millions shopped small, and the movement went viral across social media. Small Business Saturday eventually gained enough momentum to be declared an official day by a bipartisan resolution from the U.S. Senate.

The Small Business Saturday platform is an example of how Capital-C Creativity can deliver a paradigm-shifting solution. It created something that's become as much a part of our holiday shopping calendar as Black Friday. However, it's more connected to community than just commerce, and that is a passion-driven business advantage that's truly meaningful.

Capital-C Creativity goes beyond advertising, though. It's about creative solutions. It's no secret 2020 was one of the most challenging business environments in recent history. Established global brands and small businesses were forced to toss their playbooks out the window as their creative problem-solving skills were put to the test like never before.

In a McKinsey & Company survey, 90 percent of executives said they expect Covid-19 to fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years. Another survey from SHRM suggested 32 percent of small businesses would have to find new ways to deliver their existing services. It's one thing for established businesses to shift resources to weather a storm; for small businesses, this was like steering a stand-up paddleboard directly into a typhoon.

Take what's happened to the restaurant industry, for example. According to the National Restaurant Association, in 2020, 87 percent of full-service restaurants experienced, on average, a 36 percent decline in sales due to the pandemic, and more than 110,000 establishments had to close their doors.

Major restaurant chains and local restaurateurs saw consumers prioritize grocery items over restaurant food and they had to quickly pivot or risk closure. Big brands like Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Subway and others debuted grocery services, allowing their customers to get bread, meat and other deli items so they had the ingredients they needed to make meals at home. In my own backyard in Boston, Mei Mei, known for their award-winning dumplings, adapted by creating dumpling kits paired with virtual classes when city restrictions forced restaurants to forego indoor dining.

How are these Capital-C Creativity? TASTE magazine found that many restaurant owners now "see meal kits as a permanent part of their business model … with the goal of diversifying income streams and becoming a more sustainable business." Paradigm shifted.

Little-C Creativity is what happens when you become overly focused on what the data says you should do. It's what you end up with when you give in to the fear of taking a risk on what could be done. That's not to say Little-C Creativity is bad or a failure. It may very well get the job done, but it's not Capital-C Creativity—it doesn't inspire, it won't change your business, and it absolutely won't give you an advantage over your competitors.

To me, there are three critical elements to ensure you foster Little-C Creativity that breaks through to Capital-C Creativity:

1) Capital-C Creativity comes from diverse perspectives.

To tackle a big challenge, make sure you have a diverse mix of talent and personalities in the room. That may be strategy people, digital experts, PR, media specialists, maybe even accounting folks, and of course, your key creatives. Having a diversity of perspectives leads to creative conflicts, constructive discussions and helps define the real business problem to be solved.

2) Inspire and demand curiosity.

I truly believe curiosity leads to the courage and confidence needed to break through the walls that Capital-C Creativity lives outside of. Make sure you give your team room to breathe. Mandate that they block out at least an hour or two per day for creative thinking, exploration or reading. This may give you anxiety as a manager, but trust me, the results will be worth it.

3) Celebrate the Little-Cs.

It's easy to celebrate the Capital-C Creativity ideas and wins. When it comes to pushing Little-C Creativity to the next level, I find underscoring the small successes can inspire your team with the confidence they need to seize the opportunities that lead to major creative breakthroughs.

To turn the Little-Cs into Capital-C Creativity, you have to foster the kind of courage it takes for your team to drive an idea further than it's supposed to go, to push it a bit further. To use a line from Colin Kaepernick in the "Dream Crazy" ad, "Don't ask if your dreams are crazy; ask if they're crazy enough."

Today, we're all marketers, whether you're a Fortune 500 executive, a local restaurateur or a freelance designer selling art on Etsy, and we're all looking to unlock the Capital-C Creativity that will lead to extraordinary results. 

As marketers, we'll always have the ability to create campaigns that can drive top-line revenue. However, as creative problem solvers, we can inspire our teams to come up with ideas and solutions that not only create meaningful growth and a long-term competitive advantage, but also shape businesses and influence culture and the world around us. 

Believe it or not, I'm actually feeling energized by this past year, even amid an environment that unearthed a-million-and-one problems to solve. It's an opportunity to think about how we, as a creative industry, can help devise and deliver the change we want to see. I truly believe the year ahead will give us the chance to deliver the kind of Capital-C Creativity that changes how we think about business and opportunity for years to come.

So, what are you waiting for? Start building on those Little-C Creativity ideas and push them even further, because the world needs your Capital-C Creativity like never before.

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Pam Hamlin
Pam Hamlin is president of GYK Antler and York Creative Collective.

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