#Nudgestock 2016: Part II, Creativity

This is my second post on the Nudgestock festival of behavioural economics which I attended last week. This post will focus on the two speakers who addressed creativity; the last two were more about core behavioural economics and the next post will focus on the scientists who addressed the conference.

The broader speaker on creativity was the FT’s Undercover Economist, Tim Harford, also writer of the enormously popular book of the same name, AND presenter of ‘More or Less’ on Radio Four; the excitement in the crowd for his talk was tangible.  Walking on to the stage, Harford immediately commanded attention, and during his talk you could hear a pin drop.

His title was ‘Why Frustration makes us Creative’, a premise which is intuitive enough so that between one’s own assumption and watching the video, there is little I can add to explain in between. I would recommend you watch it, if not just for the ideas but also how to observe someone completely in command of a stage in a presentation, so much so he was probably even keel with Rory Sutherland, who owned the stage for all other speakers even just as interstitial.

What caught my eye in particular though was the detailed comparison he made to the idea of creative problem solving to Simulated Annealing, which my analytics tutor might be pleased to know I guessed before he told everyone of this magical algorithm, but less pleased to know that before this talk, SA was the optimisation algorithm I hated the most out of all the ones we had to write. And yes, as I tittered on twitter at the time, I am still fairly certain I was the only person in there who had written one (or two, or three) in the past six months. Simulated Annealing works by imitating metal cooling into a crystalline structure- let’s leave the explanation to Wikipedia. Harford compared ingenuity to the annealing process by acknowledging that initial ideas need to have the freedom to be all over the search space, and initially not promising/compromising, but eventually cooling towards the best solution for the space by being less compromising with one’s criteria. It was an ingenious comparison which still strikes me a week later for its guile, and not just because it effectively found a redeeming reason for Simulated Annealing’s existence.

Footnote: if anyone would like to get me anything for Christmas, or indeed someone you like a worthwhile present, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card set which is referenced in Harford’s talk is here.

The industry speaker to address creativity was Dave Trott. Previously an ad-man himself, he now speaks and advises on his subject. In his career, Trott was responsible for some of the most notable adverts of the 80s and 90s in the UK, such as ‘Hello Tosh… Toshiba’ advert which I know of even though it was before I was born! So, although influential in the UK advertising industry, I found it particularly interesting to learn that his formative education was in the US at the Pratt school in New York, which follows the Bauhaus principles of form following function, which was the basis of his talk.

Staid facts aside, his talk was unexpectedly excellent – not being an advertiser myself, I was unfamiliar with his work, which I do not think hobbled me too much. Trott’s premise is that advertising (though you could generalise this to any number of industries) has now become wrapped up in its tools rather than its purpose – the message that’s meant to be delivered. Simple, powerful ideas work far better than complexity which impresses you and your marketing friends but the public haven’t the time nor inclination to bother with – it reminded me of the notion in film of Oscar-baiting. The seat of the problem was one I was familiar with, namely that organised schooling of advertising and marketing had created a nigh on impenetrable box made from the same stone as ivory tower academia, and the industry was having trouble thinking outside it and actually reaching consumers. This was amusingly demonstrated with the following notion;

We see around 1,000-2,000 advertisements per day. Taking the smaller figure and the conference attendees (200), there were about 200,000 potential advertising impressions to be made the day before the conference. Of this theoretical 200,000, only 7 could be recalled the next day.

Not the epitome of scientific method but an important idea all the same. Trott’s style is unforgiving in delivering these messages (see above) and while I (perhaps a bit smugly) giggled away, the shifting discomfort in the seats of those who these barbs were being aimed at was palpable – but in my humble opinion, they deserved it. Being seduced by complexity and ignorant of ineptitude – does the advert actually work – is as much a problem for advertising as it is for management, operations, and any number of human activities and which everyone could do with a reminder of every now and again. A field test of my own led me to the conclusion that they deserved it – while I was on twitter throughout the conference, I noticed few tweets critically engaging the content of the talks and most were regurgitating particular soundbites. I did on occasion too, but this conference was not aimed at students like me, it was aimed at people who should be able to confidently and competently critique and engage with this trend in their industry. Instead, we got this pointless echo chamber of attenuated blips, stripped of context and therefore, a lot of embedded meaning. The hosts were already doing this – what was that about being devoid of creativity again?

Lastly, I am looking forward to the moment when Data Science gets it’s own Dave Trott, because the level of puffery around the subject it not showing signs of abating.

Next post will be about the scientists!

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