I want to say a little about chemistry. If you have followed any of my past posts, you know I think a lot about…

I want to say a little about chemistry. If you have followed any of my past posts, you know I think a lot about brainstorming strategies. After all, having a well-equipped toolbox of creative brainstorming strategies is essential to what I, and others in “creative” do each day. In fact, it’s recognized as such a vital part of the process that there are hundreds of books out there (and new ones popping up each day) filled with ideation/brainstorm techniques, strategies, etc.
These books list out their respective strategies, complete with colorful examples from a variety of media, but few address what I hold is the ultimate perquisite for any of these strategies to work… and that is, chemistry. I am talking about the chemistry between members of your creative team. Without a healthy chemistry between team members, the best brainstorming strategies become ineffectual. In fact, there are a lot of highbrow studies floating around that claim scientifically that brainstorming doesn’t work. My personal experience tells me this is bunk. I have a portfolio of work that, in my opinion, refutes any claim that brainstorming doesn’t work. 

Having worked in ad agencies for the better part of my career, I have a lot of firsthand experience with the “chemistry” issue, and have gathered together a few observations on what I think helps nurture a successful creative chemistry within a team dynamic. (I am defining team as writer/art director or a group session.) 

A winning chemistry between two people (or a bigger team) is hard to come by. You can’t force it. As a manager, you should know strong chemistry takes time to develop. Ditto for creatives. How long depends on the individuals of course. By winning chemistry, I mean a relationship in which personalities can creatively/productively co-exist and be critical. More seasoned folks can usually blend pretty quickly if they’re going to blend at all. (Managers, remember that not every team you form will become an A-team. Move people around, try new combinations.)
Creativity is essential to a successful creative partnership, but I think there is something even more critical? Personally, I put trust before creative prowess any day of the week. You can be the most creative person in the world, but icky feelings like pride, fear or shyness will always get in the way of good work if you don’t have a partner or partners you trust.
If you don’t think an idea is working, you have to trust you can be honest with your partner without worrying you will hurt his/her feelings. Conversely, you want a partner who will be honest with you. It all sounds so elementary, but truth be told such trust is elusive. Given the choice, most people just clam up rather than hurt someone else’s feelings or risk getting their own feelings hurt—and the work suffers as a result. Mastering the art of productive disagreement is no small task.
Here are a 5 steps you can take to foster a successful creative partnership and to start building that trust—all of which circle the idea of establishing common ground/expectations before beginning which, in my experience, creates the kind of comfort zone where trust can grow.
1. Agree to a method for brainstorming. For example, agree to a 30-minute brain dump during which you throw out everything and anything that comes to mind. Play off what your partner says if an idea sparks a thought for you. But no critical commentary at this point. You are just warming up, throat-clearing so to speak. Then you go back and rake the coals, picking out the hot ideas and talking about how you might develop them. This ‘anything goes’ approach, sans criticism, does a good job of setting an inclusive and nonjudgemental tone.
2. Together, review the strategy and objective (aka creative brief) before you begin. Make sure you both understand and agree on what the project requires of you. After reviewing the input or creative brief, I would always begin by saying, “Well, here’s what I think we’re trying to get across.” And ask if that’s what your partner is thinking. If you are both headed in different directions, it will only exacerbate an already uneasy situation.
3. If you don’t think an idea works, offer a rationale for why. Instead of saying, “I don’t know, it just feels wrong,” think about the objective, the strategy and how an idea or approach hits or misses in that regard. (Our personal likes and dislikes can easily get the better of us.) This does two things. First, your partner, whether she agrees with you or not, will appreciate the more thoughtful objection. Second, this way of evaluating ideas keeps the strategy/objective top of mind, and after looking at it long enough and closely enough you might discover that the strategy itself is off or that there is a better strategy.
4. Redefine your idea of ownership. In a truly collaborative relationship, learn to say we and our, not me and mine. Who came up with what, or said what, is often lost along the way to a well-forged solution. So if you are a glutton for credit and think more in terms of getting praise for individual performance vs. team success, you will fray the partnership before it has a chance to grow. This is a difficult adjustment for many creative professionals to make because it works against the idea of performance-based compensation. How will the boss know what’s me and what’s not? How will they evaluate me within the confines of a team? (Boss, it’s up to you to make clear to your staff how you view teamwork in this regard.)


5. Throw that stupid idea out there. More times than I can remember, even when I was comfortable with my partner, I would still find myself holding back on a “stupid idea” that, when I finally coughed it out, turned out to be the spark that set off a great idea. As trust begins to build, have faith in your partner to sometimes see the nugget in what you think are your stupid ideas, and have faith in yourself not to crumble or get defensive if your big idea doesn’t get the reaction you think it should.


I think brainstorming is such an integral part of so many marketing departments, that it serves you well to throw a lot of love at this notion of building trust as a way to build creative output. You can go too far, though. For instance, I worked at a small agency in Wisconsin years ago where it was SOP for each of us to wear Groucho Marx nose and glasses during group brainstorm sessions because the owner felt it keep things “light”. In truth, when I think about the effectiveness of those meetings, I think Groucho kept things a little “too” light.
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