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The One Thing That Truly Motivates Creative Talent—And How To Foster It

Educator and author Deborah Morrison talks inner mojo and the simple, yet critical stuff of wanting to be good.

[Image: Flickr user Victor Bezrukov]

Talent. It’s the subject line of many an inbox message these days. All of us who belong to the great ecosystem of new talent development—universities, portfolio programs, think tanks, agencies—and agency leaders, mentors, recruiters, and talent managers, offer opinions about who we need now and how we train them. Even better, the discussion has evolved to the nurturing of talent over the long ride of a career.

This is good.

From my vantage point of a couple of decades of preparing creatives and strategic thinkers for careers, the true platform for talent development hinges on building one beautiful characteristic from which all success flows: intrinsic motivation. It’s all the reasons we do things that have little to do with money or offices or perks. It can make B skill level into an A+ creative.

Image: Flickr user Archives New Zealand

Intrinsic motivation is the mojo that breathes life into curiosity and lifelong learning, into building new and better skills, into making individually defined talent level bloom into something of value to the whole. It pushes us to go beyond obligation in our work.

Intrinsic motivation makes us love what we do and find ways to do that well.

There’s plenty of intellectual heft to back this up. Harvard business professor Teresa Amabile grew a cult following after her 1998 landmark research about successful creative organizations. Her study found that creative skills, domain expertise, and intrinsic motivation were necessities to drive creative culture. Behavioral psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi built his flow theory around a core ideal of intrinsic motivation.

Industry greats such as Paul Venables, Janet Kestin, Nancy Vonk, and John Boiler note that passion for good work drives talented people, that it is shared values that build the best teams and culture.

The inclusion of intrinsic motivation as a business proposition is epic. It explains what catapults great agencies and the people in them to the upper strata of epic creative. I’ve seen it realized at the best places from monolithic to radical, when everyone—receptionist to CCO to producers to client—believes in what they do and why it’s important. Quite frankly, it’s a rather rare commodity (we’ve all seen plenty of places that don’t fit this model), but when it happens, it is remarkable.

As a professor on the front lines of producing best talent, I believe intrinsic motivation can be developed in individuals and cultures. The questions become: How do we develop this early on so young talent walks in the door ready and enthused? How do we sustain that motivation throughout a career? But more, how do we develop organizational cultures that believe and live up to this shared expectation?

A few recommendations follow.

Make curiosity the lynchpin of programs, in school and beyond

Image: Flickr user Trang Vuong

Curiosity is key. We find that directly developing this skill in class and through extraordinary projects opens doors to bigger thinking and investment. There’s also a direct connection between curiosity and building hybrid skills in students. When they are curious about the world and how it functions (how does that work? who does this affect? why why why?), they will work to understand people, technology, and culture. To be honest, I want them to be dedicating more time to understanding the world than to making a slick campaigns book. Both can be important, but the first builds a way of thinking for a lifetime.

I know this philosophy works in our classes. Learning should be all about finding the golden tension of interdisciplinarity, the joy of connection. And that happens when we build from curiosity. And I’m watching it come alive in 72andSunny’s newest version of 72U under the directorship of Maria Scileppi. (Transparency alert: I helped shape this new version and I’m proud of the outcome.) Maria and her cohort are jumping into 12 weeks of psychogeography, quantified living, Arduino projects, and days spent thinking how to make the world a better and smarter place, as they learn agency culture. They’re studying the world and how it lives.

Will they be ready to land in a fast creative agency? Absolutely. Their ability to provoke and connect culture to their chosen profession becomes ownable. Compare that to multiple "training programs" in the industry that train only for agency process and tired, entrenched versions of creative thinking or agency bureaucracy.

Model how to love the work and the profession

Image: Flickr user Danny Chapman

Attention, mentors: do something big with all that influence. Remind your protegeés that this profession has to work to its highest standard. Give feedback that involves direction about doing the right thing. Remind them that best business practices can feed the soul and drive the economy. If it were easy, anybody could do it and, really, they can’t.

How about this: when our Oregon program took 53 students to Creative Week last May, brilliant JWT CCO Matt MacDonald (since moved to BBDO) came up with the idea of an eight-hour internship. Our bright students were toured, fed, briefed in the morning, then gave five-minute team pitches in the afternoon to Matt’s JWT team and their client. Great ideas and great reaction collided all over the room. The excitement, the motivation was inspiring for all. It was also expected.

Train new talent with the idea they’re here to be awesome, then demand that from them. Hardasses with character motivate. Ask anyone about Bernbach or Riswold or Hoffman; a demanding mentor inspires.

Understand what people want to do with their lives

Image: Flickr user Zengame

In my years of doing this, a truth shines through that captures the best of this profession. Students driven by creativity and curiosity want to do meaningful work. The reality of intrinsic motivation is that it is driven by purpose. The old "it’s only advertising" heard in offices across the land kills that spirit.

Instead, better to build investment from junior talent by doing work that is socially meaningful as it solves business problems. That’s good for brands and for people. Don’t think of this as kumbaya. Think of it as your little parcel of change agentry. Look at Ty Montague’s Storydoing project or brand expert Scott Bedbury’s take on brands with superpowers. That’s the thinking that grows intrinsic motivation.

Build a culture of forward thinking

Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch

No treatise on talent would be complete without stating the obvious: we need to open doors (then keep them open) to people of color and to women for leadership roles. (It makes my head hurt that we’re all still talking about this in 2013.) We know that research and conventional wisdom tell us better ideas and more divergent problem-solving comes from diverse teams.

We also know that the promise of richer thinking grows motivation and makes everyone better. The organization that actively searches for bright thinkers from an array of backgrounds and perspectives drives the future. Watch Google and Facebook as they gather world-class talent. Or look at this great example: Steve Stoute and his Translation brainchild that will change the world by gathering people who know abundant culture and connect it well. And this great read: Marty Neumeier’s MetaSkills Five Talents for the Robotic Age. We’re ready for this.

At it simplest, the answer to motivating people to do more, create more, be more is to give them the aspirational tools they need. The rest will grow from that starting place. That, of course, is about leaders who inspire and ideas that solve business problems with generosity and courage. Yes, I’m asking for a lot in a world fraught with economic angst and systems evolving at the speed of pixels flying. But, dammit, we deserve this.

To be honest, I’m an optimist but one blessed with a realistic perspective. I want the work I do in training people to result in bright resonant careers and better craft. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. But more, I want that bright glow of wanting to be good at what we do to drive us.

Deborah Morrison, PhD, is the University of Oregon’s Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising. She teaches conceptual thinking, creativity and content, portfolio, mobile media, and Oregon’s Creative Strategist courses. She co-authored, with Glenn Griffin, The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising's Big Ideas are Born (2010) and Idea Industry: How to Crack the Advertising Career Code with Brett Robbs (2008). She believes brave and generous thinking will save the world. In fact, that’s the focus of her next book on talent.