BY David Nobay, Co-Founder – creativespirit.us.org
Somewhere between the distant echo of The GFC and the deep-fake conundrums of our all too recent now, something faintly wonderful has bubbled up: a renewed hunger for creativity, in its purest, rawest, most natural form.
I say “in its most natural form” because, whilst we’ve long admired all-things-creative in a kind of rhetorical “who doesn’t dig creativity?” way, so much of what was delivered up to us as “creative” was instead a heavily synthesized, homogenized and, frankly, sterilized version of reality. A pale reflection, in every sense.
Maybe it was meant to be escapism? But, for so many of us, all that air-brushing really managed to escape was a genuine acknowledgment of society’s more vivid, outer edges: The faces and stories of people who don’t live anywhere near the realms of central-casting but do inhabit a perspective that offers up fresh eyes on our world.
But now, thankfully, there’s a turnaround. Or, at least, the beginnings of one. Be it the creative idea behind the funniest, latest podcast, or the creative ingenuity behind a radical new way to clean up our oceans, there appears to be a genuine zeal for all things, well, genuine.
The proverbial dam has busted. And colorful, diverse, and refreshingly eccentric voices are pouring onto our screens by the day. Indeed, the very content we used to embarrassingly refer to as “edgy” only a few, short years ago is now, in 2021, widely accepted. And, more importantly, expected.
Along with the explosion of fresh, new faces across our devices, our collective appetite has expanded to real, human voices. Different voices, with different accents, angles, and ideas.
Ten years ago, I launched the project Creative Spirit in my hometown, Sydney, Australia, with a simple, but, in retrospect, eerily modern premise: ”WHAT COULD BE MORE CREATIVE THAN BEING DIFFERENT?”
Back then, the context was advertising: my personal career for over 30 years. And, specifically, as a Creative Director, my own selfish and practical need for more unexpected, untried ideas. The kind of radical, lateral thinking that doesn’t prosper in a bubble of sameness. In short, my own quest for more creativity.
One of the things I’ve long loved about the advertising industry (trust me, there are more than a few things I don’t!) is our obsession with anything and everything new. For all of us here on the creative side of the business, our absolute kryptonite is the traditional, the expected, the formulaic, the establishment, and, worse still, the (yuck) rules!
In this anarchic, creative playground, diversity isn’t ( or, shouldn’t be) cosmetic … diversity, in all its forms, is simply core to the way we get to surprising thinking. Much like a writer’s room for a comedy sit-com, the best creative departments in advertising only bubble and fizz when the voices around the table clash spectacularly. (Basically, the opposite of Congress!)
Mixing up those voices is our most treasured superpower. It’s a practical necessity.
Which is why, whilst running a large ad agency back in 2009, it occurred to me that, if we were genuinely committed to embracing the unexpected in our pursuit of creativity, what could be more different than welcoming a neuro-diverse person into our company culture? And so, without much more thought than that, I hired a young man with Downs Syndrome named Lloyd Fernandez.
The day I met Lloyd for his interview, I saw a nervous, introverted young man, too shy to look me in the eye.
Within six months, Lloyd was, in every sense, reborn.
Far from lacking confidence, he now possessed the easy swagger of a rock star, fittingly bejeweled in the bling he would effortlessly liberate from your person with the ravenous appetite of a magpie.
Did I mention that Lloyd was officially our Hydration Director?
It was a fittingly unique position, for someone who rapidly proved to be utterly unique, himself. The title was later expanded to include “Head of Birthdays”, in recognition of Lloyd’s rendition of “Happy” By Pharrell; a ballad he trotted out with consistent gusto on an almost daily basis to celebrate staff birthdays, anniversaries, wins, losses and, if nothing else, Fridays.
But along with an appetite for hip-hop and bohemian jewelry, Lloyd had also quickly developed a level of self-confidence that culminated in him informing his mother that he would like to travel into work every day on his own, by bus. To most parents, this change may be seen as fairly minor, but to Lloyd’s immediate family, this subtle declaration of independence was akin to hearing your son or daughter has just gained a scholarship to Harvard. The entire adventure was detailed in a little film we made called “Lloyd’s Story”: https:/ /www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QQXQziMud8.
As our film explained, for all his transformation, the true winners in this unofficial experiment were really us; Lloyd’s 150 colleagues at Droga5, Sydney. His unassuming radiance and utter joy at being part of something bigger than himself; the sense of being both “seen” and valued, reminded every one of us to take nothing for granted: certainly not a plum job in an advertising agency. As Lloyd’s pitch increased, our collective frequency calmed. As his confidence spiked; our group ego retreated. The change in atmosphere was nuanced but palpable. So successful, in fact, that Lloyd’s story inspired many more stories, from other neuro-diverse candidates who suddenly found a home, in agencies and creative companies from Sydney to New Zealand.
Creative Spirit was born. But its ambitions were always wider than ad agencies and broader than Sydney. The catalyst for an upgrade of CreativeSpirit came in the form of two incredible women, who I now value as both friends and co-founders of CreativeSpirit-us.org: Laurel Rossi and Gina Grillo.
I met both these human dynamos in Costa Rica, of all places, where I was judging an international awards show hosted by them.
Thanks to their sheer force of will (both Laurel and Gina have their own neurodiverse children to inspire their tenacity) Creative Spirit US officially relaunched on September 2017 at New York’s Adweek, powered on by a captured media industry in attendance. Since those first heady days, CreativeSpirit has grown and matured significantly, culminating in our platform being named by FAST COMPANY this year as one of their favorite ”world-changing companies”.
More exciting still, as co-founders, we instinctively sense that “this is the year for Creative Spirit” to truly realize its potential; buoyed on by the rising wave of consumer demand for authentic and mercurial expressions of creativity. Whether that creative base is in the shape of coders or comedians, one thing’s for sure: neurodiverse minds offer a creative top-spin that makes (or should do) their employment within America’s most innovative companies a no-brainer.
Speaking of which, Elon Musk, surely one of the most influential innovators of our time, revealed this year he has Asperger’s Syndrome. And Dan Ackroyd, the brain who paved the way for an entirely new genre of comedic filmmaking has Autism. The list of creators who have – not simply overcome their neurodiversity – but weaponized its tangent gifts, is deeper than most employers of creativity appreciate. This may account for the horrendously low employment prospects for neurodiverse job applicants in the US: Only 12% of companies are hiring with disabilities in mind.
But as depressing as that statistic is, we truly believe that, as neurodiversity shifts from being a stigma to a creative superpower, the future is bright for our candidates. That’s what keeps all of us focused at Creative Spirit US.
After all: What could be more creative than being different?