When someone tells Ije Nwokorie, “I’m not creative,” his response is always the same: “That’s not possible.” Creativity, believes this CEO of the creative consultancy Wolff Olins, is something all us of are endowed with. It’s not that some people are creative and others not, but rather, sometimes creativity is “trained out of us.”
Nwokorie’s unusual perspective derives from his personal and family history. His parents were born in rural Nigeria, but had a British education. In 1966, his father was sent to the U.S. on an exchange professorship; in ’67, civil war broke out back home, and Nwokorie’s father hired “Portuguese people smugglers” to get his wife and Nwokorie’s two older siblings to the United States. Nwokorie was born in Pennsylvania, but the family decided to return to Nigeria when Nwokorie was six.
It was a move from the developed world to the underdeveloped, to a place without running water and a home with a roof of corrugated metal. But Nwokorie recalls the experience as “like going to a theme park.” He became fluent in his parents’ native tongue within months. At night he would sit with his grandmother and listen to stories. And it was in rural Nigeria that Nwokorie first developed his perspective on the universality of creative thought.
“I was living in a place where everything had to be creative,” he recalls. “The act of getting to school every day was creative, because you had to go on roads that don’t work. Having a toy was a creative act, because you had to make it.” Though the Ibo language doesn’t have a specific word for creativity—ako na uche, or “craft and thought,” is the closest translation—Nwokorie thinks that’s simply because it’s so abundant a resource in Nigeria as to not require a name. The first “creative agency” Nwokorie encountered was effectively run by a boy in his village. The boy broke apart razor blades and made personalized carvings from swaths of tire rubber, which he dipped in ink from discarded pens to make stamps for paying customers.
When Nwokorie went to a Nigerian boarding school at age 10, which he recalls as a “Lord of the Flies type environment,” he had the experience of having his creative spirit beaten out of him (sometimes literally, he says, since the school had an unfortunate belief in corporal punishment). Fortunately, higher education at universities in Nigeria and the United States restored his creative spirit.
The feeling that all people are, or can be, creative, manifests in how Wolff Olins treats its clients, which have included Mercedes-Benz and Skype. Often, he explains to his clients that they can’t expect to outsource their creative thinking to an external source like Wolff Olins. “The primary role of the external source is to help you design structures, behaviors, and coalitions that help you be creative,” he says. Wolff Olins creates the conditions that allow in situ creativity. One example: Skype was stuck in the notion that it was a VoIP brand; Wolff Olins posited that it was more broadly about helping people “do things together whenever you’re apart,” which Nwokorie says opened up new avenues of thought at Skype.
But one of the most dramatic examples of Nwokorie’s beliefs about creativity may be a transformation that happened in-house at Wolff Olins.
For years, Wolff Olins thought of its employees in three categories: there were strategists, designers, and account managers. For a long time, the first two categories were thought of as “creatives,” but the account managers were not. On paper, at least, the role of the account managers seemed rote: to keep projects on track and at budget. Some clients griped, claiming they saw the value account managers created for Wolff Olins, but they didn’t see the value they created for a given project.
But gradually, Nwokorie began to realize that the role of account manager was easily the most underappreciated of the lot. He saw that the best account managers had deep knowledge of how clients’ operations were organized. The strategists and designers could do their best work and offer potentially transformative ideas to the client, but ultimately, the account manager often had the best idea of how to sell those ideas to the client, and how to ensure that those ideas would flourish and have a life beyond Wolff Olins’s contract.
A specific example: a recent client of Wolff Olins was EE, which merged the T-Mobile and Orange brands in the U.K. It was a massive organizational task to consolidate hundreds of stores and call centers under a single new brand, but Nwokorie says Wolff Olins was able to achieve it quickly thanks to the insights of the account director—a position newly dubbed “program director” at the agency. “The program director understood the organizational complexities of the client, and was able to kill five or six birds with one stone,” knowing, for instance, that to get buy-in for a big idea required communicating it differently to different groups: “You have to make this case to the sales force, this case to the marketing team, this case to the tech department.”
Formerly, during a 75-minute pitch meeting, the account director would speak last, for five minutes. The newly conceived “program director” now leads pitch meetings. “Because we know that if they nail it, and the client is excited about the engagement we laid out, we might be able to walk out of the room in 15 minutes.”
Ultimately, suggests Nwokorie, you may want to reconsider people you work with who you’d dismissed as “noncreative” and try to think more broadly about the potential value such employees might provide. He suggests that anyone who employs “thought and craft”—who both thinks and makes—is creative, and might hold the solution to making your organization more effective.