A Subtle Manifesto for Creative Freedom

John Hunt Gives Inspirational Defense of Original Thinking in 'The Art of the Idea'

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This book is tougher than it looks. At first glance it resembles yet another theorizing tome written by an experienced adman -- in this case John Hunt, a giant of South African advertising and worldwide creative director of TBWA. But it soon transpires that the book has little to do with advertising: the word is never mentioned. Instead, "The Art of the Idea" has more in common with Paul Arden's "It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be." It's an inspirational tool, a guide to the creative process for when your back's against the wall.

Hunt is a copywriter and an award-winning playwright, so the short book is stuffed with memorable epigrams such as "No one orders a bouquet of beige flowers"; "Change doesn't keep regular hours"; and "Trust your instincts or they will go away." Some of the content is familiar -- for example, the theory that ideas often come to you when you're thinking about something else. Other sections are more personal, such as Hunt's musings on the correlation between diversity and creativity.

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The copy is clear and lucid, deliberately avoiding doublespeak. Hunt has enough of a sense of humor to realize that fake intellectuals just end up looking dumb. "Original thinking comes from making a complicated thing simple and not the other way around," he writes. Actually, fake intellectuals are one of the book's many targets.

And here we get to the crux of the matter. "The Art of the Idea" has an edge. Under its cool prose and beautiful illustrations -- by the South African artist Sam Nhlengethwa -- there's a sense that Hunt is seeking to vindicate original thinking. The title could just as easily have been "In Defense of the Idea." Ideas are portrayed as delicate, ephemeral beings that should be given space to thrive. They are allergic to bureaucracy, politics, overanalysis, compromise and bland furnishings.

What's packaged as gentle pedagogy is in reality a full-throated cry for creative freedom. It is a defense of instinct against statistics, a call for risk-taking and a protest against expediency. Hunt famously advised Nelson Mandela during the first multiracial South African elections, and allusions to freedom of thought vs. closed minds crop up throughout the text: "Free thought is what [authoritarian governments] fear the most." More broadly, he warns that cold logic, applied too early, "can stop dreamers dead in their tracks." In that respect, the corporate world will get more out of the book than creative types, who will simply say, "Yes, yes, very true" and nod their heads sagely in agreement.

Don't get me wrong -- "The Art of the Idea" is not a rant, far less a whine. Hunt's tone rarely deviates from one of calm reflection, with occasional recourse to the wry aside. But the book is a reminder that ideas are as fragile as bubbles, and that too many people take pleasure in bursting them. Hunt is simply urging all of us to give ideas room to soar and catch the light. "The real value of an idea is to see how far you can push it," he suggests. In other words, if you're looking for an early holiday gift for your client, you may just have found it.

Mark Tungate is the author of several books, including "Adland: A Global History of Advertising."
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