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Creativity Squared in association withLBB Pro
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“Good Work Is an Unexpected Answer to a Great Question”

21/05/2024
Advertising Agency
El Segundo, USA
193
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Elaine Cox, executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi USA, on how a comfort with the unknown and the Japanese concept of ‘Ikigai’ guide her creativity
According to creativity researchers, there are four sides to creativity. Person (personality, habits, thoughts), product (the thing that results from creative activity), process (how you work), and press (environment factors, education and other external factors) all play a part. So, we figured, let’s follow the science to understand your art. Creativity Squared is a feature that aims to build a more well-rounded profile of creative people.

Today we’re chatting to Elaine Cox, who joined Saatchi & Saatchi USA as an executive creative director at the beginning of 2024. 

One of Elaine’s proudest efforts was launching ‘Loopholes Cereal’, a subversive campaign aiming to help end period poverty - a problem with shockingly low awareness that affects one in four young people in the US. She has worked for iconic brands like E*TRADE, Levi's, Electronic Arts, Pepsi, Carl's Jr., Audible, and Google. Some of her favourite moments include making one of the top five TikTok challenges of all time, her work being applauded and shared by Gloria Steinem, creating branded content that was dubbed a fan favourite at a major film festival, and when one of her gaming campaigns was so effective it had to be pulled so her client could keep up with demand. 

To find out what makes all of that work tick, read on!


Person

 
I am supremely comfortable with the unknown. 
 
When I talk to the most creative people, the root of their creativity is often the result of a childhood challenge. The more insurmountable the challenge, the more powerful their creative survival skill. When they grow up and are removed from that challenging situation, their survival skill turns into their superpower. 
 
My survival skill was embracing the unknown. I was the first child born into a family of refugees who were granted asylum in the US. So, while they were busy figuring out how to establish our lives here, l was left to my own devices to figure out what life meant. I had to figure things out as I experienced them – including learning the language. I had a mind full of questions without the words to let them out. Not being able to ask my teachers and other kids for answers left me spending a lot of time observing. If I was going to make my way, I couldn’t make anything about myself. 

What are their rights of passage? Who are their heroes? What do they have? What do they want? My mind was overflowing with questions. If I wanted answers, I had to let them come to me. Even if they weren’t what I was expecting. I realised that questions weren’t scary – they were the first step on any path to anything good. Questions = optimism.
 
Would my childhood have been easier being able to say whatever was on my mind? Sure. But those challenges activated in me a patient and inquisitive mind. The bigger the question, the more exciting finding the answer would be. So here I am, the world’s most extroverted introvert. A person most comfortable alone in my head while needing other people to fill it with questions.
 

Product

 
A great creative idea feels surprising and simple. 
 
When someone shares an idea with me, I don’t want to feel comfortable or confused. There’s a huge difference between being thoughtful and overthinking. Creativity is being thoughtful enough to push yourself to new places without overthinking yourself into nowhere. 

It’s really hard to think of something completely new. Everything has been inspired by something that came before. But a great idea is always surprising in some way. Whether it’s a new idea entirely, or if it’s simply a new package. 
 
One of the most creative desserts on the planet is Osteria Francescana’s ‘Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart’. The idea came from a moment of applying new thinking to an old dish – a lemon tart. When chef Takahiko Kondo accidentally smashed a plated tart on the pastry counter, three Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura realised that it gave the dessert exactly what it had been missing – a creative presentation. Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart is a dish that was created by surprise. It doesn’t look like a lemon tart, yet it’s the best lemon tart I’ve ever had. 
 
Was it an accident or is it an answer? A truly open mind can recognise when an accident is really an answer in disguise. When someone follows their curiosity, they make things that blow people away. When it elicits a feeling of unfamiliarity, it has stopping power. 
 

Process

 
Good work is an unexpected answer to a great question. 
 
The wrong questions are either assumptions in disguise or goals that are too shallow. Creativity is the art of discovery. The right questions act as exciting starting points. What makes us excited about this opportunity? What hasn’t been said that needs to be said? What’s a new way to tell this old story? If advertising was invented today, how would I do this? Let intuition – not assumptions – guide your choices. Your curiosity should drive the outcome. Not a desire to prove yourself right. 
 
When director Bryan Fogel set out to make ‘Icarus’, he initially intended to document his personal journey on the path to professional cycling. But an unexpected encounter with a Russian scientist transformed his vision. Uncovering doping, unexplained deaths and Olympic conspiracies led him to create a film that ended up exposing one of the biggest scandals in sports history. He couldn’t have anticipated that outcome. But he started with curiosity and let the answers lead him to an unexpected place. 
 
The most exciting moment is when an answer emerges that no one could have expected. The best work defies expectations, including your own. 

A creative hypothesis gives you a starting point. But from there you must remain objective and inquisitive. And if you keep ending up with the same answers, you should try thinking of new and more challenging questions. 
 

Press

 
Ikigai is a Japanese term that roughly translates to ‘reason for being’. Finding your Ikigai represents living a life that brings you joy. 
 
The four rules of Ikigai are:
  • Do what you love.
  • Do what you're good at.
  • Do what the world needs.
  • Do what you can be paid for.
 
Embracing this philosophy leads to doing work that you love. And if you love what you’re doing, people feel it in the end. 
 
Conversely, negativity (or lack of joy) can break creativity. It shows up in many forms. We’ve all seen it or even been the source of it. When we steer the emphasis on what could go wrong or a personal need to be right, no one gets very far. When everyone on the team stays open minded and nurtures the curiosity of others, we all end up in a better spot. 
 
We’ll never survive this industry or this world if we’re obsessed with fixed outcomes. The journey itself should bring us joy. And when that happens, our world gets bigger. Our collective potential grows. And we make the best work of our lives.

Agency / Creative
Work from Saatchi & Saatchi - USA
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