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Sadly, There's No MBA for Imagination

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There are some indisputable facts in our glorious world. Men can't give birth. You can't cheat death. And you can't educate your way to creativity.

Northwestern University's prestigious Kellogg Business School doesn't have an MBA that teaches people how to see what's not yet there. Harvard can't coach its highly intelligent student body how to become imaginative. You can ask people to think outside of boxes, but the mere question should tell you the shape you're in.

In many marketing circles, the client's education has become a hazard bigger than the sand traps on the golf courses that used to define the business elite. More than a few "B-schools" have fostered a false sense of deity among its student bodies, and the danger is that rice paper on the wall is becoming a more powerful driver than the gifts of imagination, innovation and creativity.

Traditional "creatives" don't typically get MBAs, because education beyond the basic tools of the trade (art and writing) have been long since considered damaging to one's imagination. (You don't want to be "boxed" in by unnecessary parameters and case studies of others' work and numbers when you think. You want to have as unfettered a path as possible.) And yet, creative ideas must fight their way through the sea of formally educated minds in order to see the light of day. Pushing creative ideas through people who aren't creative is a massive feat, especially given the layers of bureaucracy in corporate America today.

Innovative minds rarely talk about their formal education, unless it's to joke about their failure within it. Historically, great creative minds often bomb as students of other's thinking. Instead, innovators like to hang their hats on ideas, not ideology. And that's the big difference.

Sam Walton, the grand innovator he was, wouldn't get hired at Wal-Mart corporate today. Ray Kroc, the hustling milkshake salesman who never attended college, wouldn't find a place for his box-less thinking at today's McDonald's. Willy Wonka, if he had existed, never would have made it inside the hallowed halls of Hershey simply because of the creative way he dressed.

There was a time that the MBA was simply an extension of the golf course boys club. It proved to be an efficient way to pass over candidates who didn't have one without seeming discriminatory. It wasn't because a pass over was female or minority or old or didn't swim in the right social circles, but that he/she didn't have a piece of paper that said they were properly trained. It was a convenient filter to keep the club in good standing. But a superior course load does not build creativity and great ideas are not reserved for the educated. The mind either has it, or it doesn't.

When players and coaches witness natural skills on the playing field, they'll quip, "Hey, ya can't teach that." So it is with imagination. It is a gift, a way of viewing the world that is manna from heaven. Some people are great with numbers, some with science, some with analysis. And then there are the rare among us who can create new ideas in business, and in particular marketing, which engage consumers and motivate them to take specific sales-driving actions.

One of the saddest trends in marketing today is agency "death by marketing department." This occurs when the marketing department of a corporation overrules its agencies time and time again, instead opting for its own ideas and turning agency creative minds into hand servants of the marketing department's work. And then, when the multi-million dollar initiatives fail to perform, the brand manager fires the ad agency because the spots didn't work and the marketing agency because sales were flat. Agencies have moved more and more often into a vendor rather than partner relationship. In the end, this power shift compromises imaginative solutions and endangers brand success.

Creativity is a gifted way of thinking, an art not a science. It cannot be birthed from pie charts and graphs and analysis. It looks simply at the people it's trying to reach and figures out a way to reach them. What is Suzie Shoppers want/need/desire? What innovation will get her attention? Motivate her to take action? Make her feel good about her decision? It's often said "a good idea can come from anywhere." Yes, it's true. But a good idea can't come out of thin air. It's the massive exception not the rule when an uncreative mind hits pay dirt.

In today's marketplace where competition for the consumer's attention has never been greater, "What would Sam Walton do?" Simple. He would search out the innovators, not necessarily the ones with rice paper on the wall. Advanced educations are outstanding business assets, he'd agree, but creativity and innovation can't be learned in a classroom.

Sarah O'Leary is a creative marketing expert, consultant and author. She may be reached at soleary@thelogicagency.com.