“The creative industry needs to develop REAL creativity, not the vanilla templatised inane rubbish that litters so much of the media these days.”

Nicole Yershon is a consultant, best-selling author, founder, mentor, maverick, inspiration and self-confessed ‘original rough diamond’. Being a proud supporter of SCA for over a decade, we decided it was time to add Nicole to the SCAB wall of fame. Read on for a no holds barred interview on the importance of creativity, industry challenges and making change happen.

Nicole, tell us a bit about yourself and the career path that’s led to where you are now.

My father was instrumental in the media industry. He was among the first to spot how ad agencies didn’t appreciate the critical work of media and planning – so he created a breakaway movement for media independence. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. 

So my first job took me on a journey through three very privileged decades, working with multi-awarded full-service agencies. Gold Greenlees Trott, Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson, Walsh Trott Chick Smith and Ogilvy Group UK. Pretty famous in their day, and they spawned a lot of very talented people. 

To get by in the brutal environments of agencies in those days takes a thick skin. Especially for a woman, although that never was an issue for me. An exceptionally thick skin. 

But the bottom line was, and is that you needed to be able to turn on a dime and wear eight hats. As a result, being asked what I do is a difficult question for me. It depends on what needs doing. And often, what you get asked to do isn’t what needs doing – so you make a few enemies along the way.

These enemies become your long-term friends when they realise you were right to do the right thing rather than the ‘ask’. That made me a mischief-maker and a maverick.

Today I sometimes say I’m an expert generalist. People do not understand that, so that’s ideal because it fosters conversation. There’s not enough of that these days.

I’m ‘creative’ nowadays because I redefine that word slightly every time – depending on the situation. A problem solver, a connector of dots, a convener of capability and talent – a collaborator. I love to build and work with teams to make the impossible happen.  

I often get brought in when something appears impossible but has to happen. It’s usually because people have not been courageous enough to ignore the barriers and get it done. I am a doer. I like to ship. 

I turn disruption to advantage. I’ve written a bestselling book on that. 

How did you come to be involved with SCA?

When Marc had the idea to set up a creative school over ten years ago, I believed in it. It was perfect timing and necessary for our industry.  

Future talent of the right calibre and breadth is so important. Most companies don’t have anywhere near enough creativity among their ranks. The creative industry needs to develop REAL creativity, not the vanilla templatised inane rubbish that litters so much of the Omnichannel Media these days.

Creativity isn’t defined by graphic design or ad headlines, or bylines. Creativity is a mentality and the raw material for every industry. It is about ideas. It solves puzzles. 

Creativity gets stifled by companies seeking short-term results. It drives me crazy. It’s stupid.

It takes time to nurture, and each industry must do its best to give back. I always get excited about reverse mentorship programmes. I’m curious about people, their thinking, character and strengths.

You’re a member of The Ideas College and Creative Conscience. You launched Ogilvy Labs in 2008 and have been a firm supporter of SCA for over a decade. What was the catalyst and reason for getting behind these programmes?

Max (my son) was close to being expelled from school so many times.

He didn’t conform. The way he thought wasn’t how school systems worked. He was told that he would never amount to much. 

Sitting quietly and unquestioningly for hours on end caused his mind to rebel. His response was to kick off. Not feel understood. By way of illustration, he dyed the school swimming pool red once.

What was taken as a sign of disobedience was a cry for help. The school didn’t help. So, I went to the school and told them they were the problem, not Max. 

I knew deep inside that he just couldn’t write the brief for what he needed, and the school wasn’t taking that kind of brief from the kids. So thankfully, the Headmaster agreed that I had a point. 

They gave Max a chance and an interpreter teacher to channel Max to his teachers and channel teachers to Max. The school got real, and I was eternally grateful. He became Deputy Head Boy and got a First at Reading University.

The SCA is real and as a result of Max and the Rough Diamond programme my journey has been such a great privilege. 

The SCA has a genuine position in my mind – just like how any great brand works. Say those initials, and boom in my head – it’s real.

The SCA vision goes something like this:

“We look for the misfits and disruptive thinkers who define genuine creativity. They tend to be unlike what most people think of as normal. We give birth to a new generation of creative talent. We shape creatively motivated people into ‘ideapreneurs’ that intend to become industry leaders. Don’t apply if you don’t intend to take a career as a creative human seriously; if you plan on messing about but just want the paper to get a job – go elsewhere.”

I believe in creativity and love the mission/vision, and role of the SCA.

When I led the Innovation Lab at Ogilvy, I knew we needed to bring far more diverse creative talent into the agency. To drag them into the 21st Century. I’m a great believer in diversity of thought and ideas, and sadly large agencies are not great examples of my definition of creativity.

So, together with the SCA, we set up The Rough Diamond programme. Ogilvy labs sponsored it from the start. We used revenue from the Rory Sutherland talks and books and sent that money straight into the programme. We were ideaprenuring! 

I also Chair the Ideas College and have been a Board Trustee for the charity, Creative Conscience since 2000.

Why do you think SCA is important for the industry?

SCA shines a light on my definition of creativity, and oh boy, we need it. 

Quite honestly, I believe it goes way beyond the so-called creative industry. Most youngsters who go into any further education can find that they don’t end up in that career. Like University, you read a subject like Humanities and end up in a Financial Services role.

I am a passionate believer that creativity isn’t a job title. It’s a mentality that can be applied to everything, like the current rise in AI, where people may believe that AI will take your job. A human using AI might, but creativity will ensure you will always have a job. 

The importance of SCA is that it can help shape and teach the next generation to think and solve the problems they are presented with. The SCA gives people the right mindset and a broad range of skills to apply in any industry, helping to build resilience, original thought, and problem-solving techniques. 

All these traits are essential for success in any field.

We know you’re an advocate for mentoring. What inspired you to mentor and how did you get into it?

I noticed how we all need people to be objective with us. 

The longer we drift on in our subjective bubble, the more chance we have of having it burst brutally and unexpectedly. It’s almost always never good.

We are lucky if we have a mentor. Someone we trust who is prepared to give us advice of benefit to us and not them. It’s sometimes hard to take, but it’s always 100% valuable.

I was curious and excited to see what future talent could teach me, as well as the opportunity for me to give back. 

What do you feel are the core benefits of mentoring for both mentor and mentee?

I recently worked with The Young Vic. To kick off the programme, we met by Zoom. I asked each young ‘mentor’ to arrive with five different Zoom backgrounds to reflect their personalities. They blew me away with their creativity, far beyond what I would expect to see if I asked a senior art director in a large agency context.

There were a total of 8 mentors, so a total of 40 ideas were displayed. They integrated poems, music, musicians, art, sculpture, bible quotes, typography, design, fashion, architecture – and more. I had to google everything they shared – it was mind-blowing and relevant. It answered the brief and some.

This made them feel fantastic because they got incredible emotional feedback from me. I immediately realised how they could add value, even though, as mentors, they were the kids. The ‘mentees’ were the CEOs – people running their own companies. 

The exercise helped them overcome their feelings of imposter syndrome. I loved that project. It became such a success – we were immediately a team. The seniors learned so much from the youngsters and vice versa – reverse mentorship became real for me. 

Why should a business invest in learning and development for its employees?

It’s an obvious thing for me but, sadly, not a common occurrence. Sure, lip service is paid, and things are improving, but it’s slow. Unfortunately, I am not blessed with patience.

Instead of taking on another highly paid C-Suite Executive, I’m working with a client who has taken on 12 graduates and is training them on the job.  

This investment in their future will reap dividends, and their clients will see benefits too. Investing in learning and development for employees is a sign of trust and respect and can lead to increased productivity. It’s a longer-term investment (another thing we often seem incapable of). 

Overall it is proven to improve employee skillsets, decrease turnover, better customer service, higher morale among staff, and ultimately increase profits. 

Businesses must encourage cross-generational conversation and learning and encourage (mandate) people in positions of high responsibility to explore new and divergent ways of thinking.  

Why is creativity so important in our industry and across all industries?

Society is in a mess, anyone who has seen the news or read a newspaper knows there are a million problems, and it’s getting more complex by the second. Creativity is shorthand for thinking our way out of trouble. Dave Trott, my father, Mike Yershon, John Caswell, my life partner, and being a parent, gave me that trait.

Thinking our way out of problems means resorting‘ to not the same solutions but newer, more creative solutions that may have been overlooked. Creativity is the ability to connect different dots. Insanity is the other route.

We must teach people to find new and innovative ways to approach a problem. It means we are prepared far better to tackle difficult situations and come up with better solutions.

​​Creativity broadens and opens up the mind. Creativity allows us to first understand and solve problems. It widens perspectives and forces us to overcome prejudices if we want to solve the real problem.

According to Harvard Business School, creativity is important as it 1. Encourages innovation, 2. Boosts productivity 3. Allows for adaptability 4. Fosters growth. 

What do you think sets SCA students apart from other grads?

SCA understands creativity and the industries it serves. It understands the brutal world of work. It knows the best result for students is full-blown preparedness built on reality. 

Marc and the team, the mentors, and the teachers contribute to creating far more rounded 360-degree students. Students who understand the core skills but also about being human and caring.

Why do you feel alternative education is important? Specifically for the creative industry.

OK, I will say the quiet part out loud. 

Traditional education isn’t fit for purpose. The real world works at a different clock speed to syllabuses, regulators, and curricula for mass education that breeds commoditisation and mediocrity.

Future creativity requires bigger dreams, bigger thoughts and bigger people. People who are not scared by, but delight in our challenges. Don’t get me wrong; I love the creative industry. I’ve spent my life there. But now I am no longer in it; I am more creative because I can see how it is ignoring its role of creating better reputations, not noise, better arguments, not peddling trash, and causing conversation that adds value. I’m more creative because I can see and help do something about it.

For me, now, the future creatives will be those that can turn the new tools (whatever they become) which are putting new and imaginative options out there (AI, BCI, Computer Vision, LLMs, Reinforcement Learning (RL), AR/MR, 3D printing, to practical use and to create the new era of society and commercial life.

In my work building future-thinking laboratories for industry, these new technologies will power human creativity in the near future. 

The SCA inspires the students to apply VR/AR, allowing creatives to visualise and interact with 3D creations in physical space, rapid prototyping, and new experiential design formats.

Think about the emerging Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) that will allow us to control computers with our thoughts – manipulating 3D designs through mental gestures or translating raw imagination into digital art. 

Generative AI that can generate photo-realistic images, videos, speech, music, code and more will partner with the students as human creators. 

This revolution is already scaling and democratising human creativity and reducing mundane, repetitive tasks. The results will undoubtedly be a fusion of human and AI creativity. Gaming, Public Spaces, New Learning, Hybrid Media, Immersive Worlds, Synthetic manufacturing, Film and Animation, Music – Endless.

Now SCA has launched their training programmes for in-house creative teams, what opportunities and benefits do you think this opens up to the industry?

So many! Many organisations profess to be agile and market-centric, but most of the time, that’s just jargon. The SCA delivers, and it’s another reason I’m such a big advocate. 

Let me give an example, Grace Kousoulou – someone I’ve met through my kids, a real human, were talking, and quite by chance, she said she would love to be more creative in her role at a major media organisation.  

She said she wanted to be more valuable, solve bigger problems, be more stimulated, get more confidence, take on more challenges, and develop her creative ability.

I couldn’t stop my inner mentor. I knew SCA had introduced Creativity Unleashed, and it was perfect. An opportunity to bring in others from across the industry, so I signed her up!

I’ve seen the power of creativity and its ability to change lives. I am always trying to give something back, especially if it broadens the idea of creativity to young minds.

For the SCA, it proves again its relevance to society, not just the creative industry. The new digital revolution (AI/LLM) will make all industries creative. The label of the so-called creative industries will have to widen. The SCA has such a critical role in this, and find myself talking about its vision more and more.

Leaning on the learnings of years in the creative industry and from working with fantastic businesses that aim to inspire change. What are our biggest challenges, and what can we do to make change happen?

The biggest challenge in the industry is a mental model that’s become the business model – a quick fix at zero investment. 

The second biggest challenge is that clients have figured out the large agency networks’ business and operating models and are actively planning strategies to work around using them. Another challenge is big brands also find it hard to find viable alternatives, so continue to accept the situation although they know they are paying heavily for it.

Let me begin by saying plenty of brilliant small, niche creative agencies are out there. Little secrets doing fantastic work, and I love that. I also know many disenchanted large agency network creatives who are amazing but are being forced out. 

I also know some leaders of large agencies within large networks who are trying to change up. It’s brutal, but against that backdrop, change to the industry overall is tough because of very vested interests. Stop me if I’m getting off track here.

The creative industry as a whole is in a time of transition. It feels like, at times, it doesn’t realise it. I know that not all clients are happy. And they are driving that change.

The industry has to realise its role has changed. It has to get back to being creative. There’s so much creativity that’s unavailable to clients. Some agencies believe that creativity dies when creatives become 35 years old.

Clients are confounded by the lack of transparency of the bigger agencies and the business models that seem to hide costs and change the goalposts to suit themselves. Agencies have died behind the idea that large global networks are the only ones to be able to deliver global brands. TikTok anyone?

I found it hard to get the leaders to appreciate how technology works. They must get more curious about new technologies, tools, and platforms. But more importantly, bring in the diverse skills needed to use them. But not at the expense of sheer creativity. The balance has to be right.

To make change happen, businesses should invest in diversity, ongoing training, embracing real innovation, and being open to experimenting with new ideas. The industry has to continue to actively recruit and support talent from diverse backgrounds, promote inclusive work cultures, and represent diverse perspectives in their work. People should be promoted to leadership positions because they are skilled and competent, not because of what University they went to or are all about ‘making the numbers’. 

To stay fresh and innovative, businesses should encourage risk-taking, foster a culture of collaboration, and provide opportunities for personal growth and skill development. 

The creative industry must embrace new business models, such as subscription-based services or on-demand platforms, which can help their clients stay relevant and competitive. The creative industry must find a balance between artistic expression and commercial success. 

What would it be if you had to put anything in room 101?

At last, an easy question!

Stupid. I’m not a fan of it. I would put ‘stupid’ in Room 101.

Spreadsheet. I’m not a fan of it. I would put ‘spreadsheet’ in room 101.

Greed as the business model. I’m not a fan of it. I would put greed as the business model in Room 101.

No. I’m not a fan of it. I would put ‘no’ in room 101.

Stupid is us being stupid. Spreadsheet cannot be the only answer to whether an idea flies. Greed is killing societies around the world. No is too often the wrong answer in a creative world. It usually signals a lack of engaged thought, denial, prejudice, and lack of courage or curiosity. The creative industry should say ‘show me the business case’ instead of no.

As Einstein said – ‘Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, 

The creative industry can be ageist – losing their best talent because their age no longer looks the part. Agencies rely on their clients to drive innovation and are slow to evolve their practices. The creative industry is notoriously slow to adapt to new technologies and trends even as they see how these new ways of working can improve effectiveness. Bureaucracy and politics hampering creativity in a creative business. 

Many layers of management and approval processes stifle ideas.  The tendency to follow trendy and award-winning work. Agencies often prioritise flashiness over effectiveness to win industry accolades.  Inefficiency and scope creep can lead to wasted budget. 

Who are you inspired by, and why?

I can’t make it about a single person. Yes, there’s Sir Ken Robinson, Brene Brown, and Steve Jobs – I am deeply inspired by them but also by eight unknown mentors at the Young Vic and the millions of others worldwide setting out on their journeys. And, of course, all the Rough Diamonds that were part of Ogilvy Labs’ ten-year programme (2006-2016)

At the heart of it all, I’m just as inspired by kindness, humility, and the ability to act and NOT just talk, by people who actually hear and don’t just listen. I’m blown away by thoughtfulness and signs of genuine empathy – ‘core’ human qualities – none of which make it to a spreadsheet.

Nicole is a consultant and best-selling author of Rough Diamond: Turning Disruption To Advantage, Founder of The NY Collective and Ogilvy Labs

Follow Nicole on Twitter @nicoleyershon

More about SCA’s new short courses for agency creatives here

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