Amber Conroy, Business Director, PHD New Zealand

In an industry that is constantly changing, the importance of creativity is stronger than ever before. The media landscape, technology and channels to connect with audiences are completely different to what they were when I started in the industry 15 years ago.

Despite all this change, the one constant that has always remained is creativity. With all the ‘newness’ comes higher expectations and pressures on creativity – to be the first, the biggest, the funniest, the most thought-provoking, the riskiest.

How do we continue to evolve our creativity and ideas at the same rate as the industry we work in?

Brené Brown (vulnerability and shame researcher and TEDx speaker) said it best: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Her hugely popular Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, challenged the perceptions of vulnerability and showed how critical it is for creativity.

To drive innovation, change and creativity, we need to learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. We need to welcome it.

Sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, the icky feeling in your tummy or your heavy reliance on rescue remedy. We’ve all been in a shit storm of some form at work – it’s a feeling we’d rather run away from and do our best to avoid. This feeling of vulnerability can often be misinterpreted by your inner critic or ill-informed colleagues as a weakness. This often leads to a culture of perfectionism, not having the courage to speak up or not sharing your creative ideas.

By not embracing and encouraging vulnerability in the workplace, we are holding ourselves back from unlocking our best selves – and our best work.

Vulnerability is simply openness.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of New Zealand’s most respected media, strategy and creative brains in the industry. I’ve been privileged to see how ‘the magic’ happens on award-winning campaigns and have seen that ‘behind the scenes’ the planners and creatives have shared the same heroic quality – they embrace vulnerability. By working with these people, I’ve learnt that innovative and creative work is born from a culture of showing up, sharing your POV, your ideas and, most importantly, respecting others. Some of my best ideas have eventuated after sharing a lot of below-average ones first. It’s all part of the journey.

At PHD two of our core values are courage and openness. To me, these two values go hand in hand to create a culture of vulnerability and, therefore, creativity. In a creative industry like ours, we are our own (and sometimes each other’s) harshest critics. It is in ours, our clients and the industry’s best interests to create a culture of openness and courage. We need to encourage each other to lean into the uncomfortable, not to shy away from it, discourage it or see it as a weakness. It needs to come from the top down, and for leaders to embrace it.

I believe a culture of vulnerability can be fostered through: embracing failure; respectful conduct; open leadership; and practising self-compassion.

Embracing failure

Brown said, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure.”

In an agency world where winning awards is often seen as the holy grail of success, it’s important we also teach our team to embrace failures. The times we fail should also be worn as a badge of honour. Embrace failures; share and learn from them. Failure is a natural part of the path of progress. It doesn’t go well every time. It’s not the perceived ‘failure’ that is important, but what we do with it. It is only a failure if we don’t do anything with it to learn and do it differently next time.

Respectful conduct

It’s easy to say “no idea is a bad idea”, but I’m sure we’ve all been witness to a ‘black widow’ in a brainstorm; the one who kills an idea before it’s had a chance to fly. We need to teach our team the art of respectful conduct – how to harness an idea, how to give and take feedback, how to not limit your thinking and others.

We also need to learn to take on feedback from only those whose opinions matter to us. “If you’re not in the arena (aka showing up, being vulnerable, stepping out of your comfort zone) getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback,” said Brown.

Open leadership

“When we build cultures at work where there is zero tolerance for vulnerability, where perfectionism and armour are rewarded, you can’t have these conversations,” said Brown. “If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.”

We can’t drive creativity or change without leadership where vulnerability is accepted and isn’t seen as a weakness. Leaders need to be open to ideas and feedback. How can we encourage people to lean into the uncomfortable if we don’t embrace it ourselves?

We need to teach the next gen that sweaty palms and butterflies are all part of the creative process and having the courage to contribute your ideas unlocks the key to great creativity.

Practising self-compassion

Vulnerability is not just about being open and supportive to others – it’s also about encouraging people to back themselves and not beat themselves up. At PHD New Zealand, we have been working with a clinical psychologist to learn strategies to build a calmer mind, block negative thoughts, unlock blockages and ultimately enhance creativity within the agency.

One of the greatest benefits I’ve personally found with mindfulness is becoming more compassionate, kinder and less judgemental towards myself. In our industry, our inner self-critic is our worst enemy. The more we can accept our inner negative thoughts, be kind to ourselves and be open, the more creative and effective we can be.

“To swear off making mistakes is very easy. All you have to do is swear off having ideas.” – Leo Burnett

In the spirit of vulnerability and courage, here are some of the most vulnerable, and creative, moments of my career:

  • Recommending no TV to an audited FMCG client for the first time
  • Filling a South Auckland School, Auckland CBD and Wellington CBD with 1,000s of minions
  • Creating a live Facebook wall (eight metres high) in Aotea Square
  • Negotiating an A-lister talent contract with no actual talent negotiation experience
  • Winning a PRINZ award for singing and dancing cows (long story)
  • Renting out CBD store fronts and turning them into soup kitchens
  • Leading a PR and Activation team after 11 years in traditional-ish media
  • Writing this piece on vulnerability (!)