To get creative, get “Lost”


How do creative ideas flourish? The May 14 issue of Entertainment Weekly provides one perspective through an oral history of the development of the pilot episode of Lost, as told by many of the principal players, including J.J. Abrams. Two lessons emerge for me, and I think these are relevant to anyone who creates a major deliverable, whether an event or a viral marketing campaign:

1. The right spark can ignite a creative fire. The most astonishing part of the EW article occurs when J.J. Abrams describes a seemingly minor detail that emerged from co-developer Damon Lindelof as the two brainstormed on the pilot episode: “[Lendelof] had this detail of a guy waking up and having a vodka bottle in his pocket. He was not looking at it from the point of view of the horrors of the crash. He was looking at this crazy detail as a way in, which was the greatest way ever. All of a sudden, we started riffing on characters and ideas we loved — Twlight Zone, Star Wars. And we very quickly realized that this could actually be something very cool . . .”

Notice what Abrams and Lindelof did not do. They did not ask themselves, “How can we make Lost different?” and then sketch out a plot treatment full of off-the-wall ideas. They did not second guess why a tiny detail like the image of a vodka bottle was unlocking such a powerful tidal wave of ideas. They just went with the brainwave. Similarly, one of the best cop movies ever made, Bullitt, grew from a seemingly prosaic passion for cars shared by Steve McQueen and Director Peter Yates. The “way in” — the creative spark that became a movie — was the automobile. And practically the entire song catalog of the Beatles emerged from odd, random moments in the lives of Lennon and McCartney; moments most of us would ignore — but they chased.

2. Then-ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun originally conceived of Lost while on vacation in Hawaii. But the show was nothing more than a rough idea until J.J. Abrams was assigned the job of developing a script. Abrams came onboard with the caveat that he needed a creative partner — which turned out to be crucial, for the collaboration between Abrams and Damon Lindelof added the supernatural touches of mystery and narrative flashback that made Lost a success. And the collaboration between the two and the ABC brass was not a predictable story of creative hot shots versus corporate suits. In fact, Braun loved the eccentric ideas that Abrams and Lindelof produced, like the emergence of the mysterious hatch, even though (or perhaps because) they had nothing to do with his original vision for Lost. On the other hand, ABC executives resisted a proposal to have character Dr. Jack Shephard killed off halfway into the original script. And the suits were right. It’s almost impossible to conceive of Lost without him.

I have blogged about collaboration and creativity before, most recently in a post about the Eagles. Lost once again shows that with the right chemistry, a team can inspire greatness, not produce mediocre groupthink.

I am also struck by the iterative nature of creative collaboration as described in the story of Lost: develop an idea, test, improve, and keep developing. By contrast, the creative process as depicted Mad Men is like baking a delicious cake: all the ingredients are carefully nurtured in an oven leading up to the big reveal.

In the real world of advertising, the days of big reveals and prima donnas working in isolation are rapidly fading away, one of the ideas explored in the forthcoming 10th Annual Razorfish Outlook Report (from my employer Razorfish). In the essay “The Power of Small Thinking,” Razorfish Chief Strategy Officer Brandon Geary argues that CMOs and their ad agency partners need to let go of their obsession with big ideas that produce one-shot campaigns.  Especially because CMOs are under pressure to prove their value over and over in a constantly changing marketplace, a more suitable approach to creative development is a test-and-learn mindset that produces a daily infusion of ideas.

In its own way, Lost is a testament to the power of small thinking — seemingly little ideas that blossom when embraced, tested (against the demands of internal collaborators and TV audiences), and then improved upon.

Stay tuned for more about the Razorfish Outlook Report May 24.