Monday, August 04, 2014

What Sherlock Holmes Can Teach Us About Advertising

The BBC series Sherlock Holmes is mega-popular.

No surprise. We like stories about people who are weird and smart.

And although Holmes is mostly a deductive, logical thinker...he could also make stunningly lateral leaps.

So what lessons does he have, for us creative types?

That's the subject (at least partly) of a book called "How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: Lessons in Mindfulness and Creativity from the Great Detective", by American science writer Maria Konnikova.

Great idea, although judging by the Amazon reviews, the book itself isn't that hot.

So without recommending you buy it, I've taken the trouble of gutting it for you.

Here's three tips.

1. Look carefully at the facts

It's very tempting when you get a case brief to dive straight in, and attempt to come up with solutions.

This is a mistake. I'm amazed at how many creatives, when they get a brief, don't even look at the company's website.

You should.

“To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces,” says Holmes, in The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.
So get all the facts first.

But remember that "Observation with a capital O" (as Holmes calls it) is "not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit?"

Deciding which aspects of the brief to focus on, and which to ignore, is crucial.

Look for relationships between the facts (this is very like police work).

Indeed James Webb Young in his famous A Technique For Producing Ideas praises "the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts.” 

2.  Focus and Distance

As a Creative, your success depends on coming up with original creative ideas. And as you well know, these type of ideas only come when you are in a particular state of mind.

That state of mind varies for different people. But I doubt anyone achieves it in an open-plan office.

(You won't find any books on creativity that advise you to enter a noisy space, with constant distractions).

So when you're working, get out of the office. Or find a room where you can shut the door.

Holmes and Watson discussed cases in their sitting room. Constantly. Quietly. Together. Are you and your partner doing that?

Another secret of working on briefs is to keep going into it and away from it.

Great quote from the Konnikova book:
"The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will."

So follow tangents, but keep coming back.

Finally, when you've worked on a problem for a while, don't forget to step away, and let your unconscious go to work on it.

Holmes played the violin in his study, for hours on end.

And in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, Watson observes: "One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage. I remember that during the whole of that memorable day he lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus."

"Observation and deduction are two separate, distinct steps — in fact, they don’t even come one right after the other" (this is from Konnikova).

To truly crack a brief, you have to "transcend the immediate moment in your mind."

3.  Know Your Field

Sherlock Holmes, as well as being a talented detective, was a highly dedicated one. He had a passion for his field, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of it.

Upon visiting one murder scene, with an Inspector Gregson, Holmes remarks:

“It reminds me of the circumstances attendant on the death of Van Jansen, in Utrecht, in the year ’34. Do you remember the case, Gregson?”
Gregson confesses that he does not.

“Read it up - you really should,” offers Holmes. “There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”

I feel that not many people in our industry nowadays are aware of what has been done before. But you really should be. So do take the time to look at old stuff, via the annuals, or websites. Not to copy them, exactly, but to know the kind of thing that works.

If you don't, you're starting each case completely from scratch. 


Jack Russel said...

Fantastic post, Simon.

Especially enjoyed the pointed comments towards the Moriarty open-plan philosophy:

"(You won't find any books on creativity that advise you to enter a noisy space, with constant distractions)."

Anonymous said...

Excellent - the analogy utterly rings true for mine. And oh so elementary when you think about it. Cheers

Martin Headon said...

As a slight Holmes obsessive, the thing about knowing all about previous cases seems to be a character trait developed for the first story, A Study In Scarlet (from which the quotation is taken), then quietly dropped in later works. Perhaps Conan Doyle realised it was more interesting for the reader if Holmes investigated each case on its merits rather than simply comparing it to fictional historical incidents.

(Not that this necessarily invalidates the advice to creatives, mind. Just saying.)

Anonymous said...

yes, open-plan offices... where did the creative office go? could be a fascinating question to post. the demise of the creative office seems to be commensurate with the dearth of really good ideas, possibly?

Anonymous said...

Even when there ARE facts, consumers don't care.

Anonymous said...

This is why it's so important creatives are given time.
Plannedrs seem to get weeks, months even, before you get it in creative on a 3 day turnaround.

Unknown said...

Agreed about disastrous open-office plans! I miss having my own office or enclosed space to work in. The worst is when they organize brainstorming sessions, which is essentially the mental equivalent of a circle-jerk.

Anonymous said...

Holmes never has to present his findings to a room full of thick cunts and have it mulled over by a group of cunts from a research group only to have them tell him he's wrong.

Sell! Sell! said...


Hey look Scamp, we agree on something (smiley face).

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with this stuff. But if I even spend a day on a brief with nothing to show at the end of it. It's assumed that I've been slacking.

I can't remember the last time I had more than a few days to work on something. The consequence of which is finding the first solution rather than the best. Sigh.