It's time to kill the genius myth
Published October 2019
for Lecture In Progress
Written by Ruby Norman-Curran
The idea of the genius has dominated the art and design industries for generations, from Don Draper-style depictions saturating our screens right through to the deified heads of the most renowned fashion houses. Wieden+Kennedy senior copywriter Ruby Norman-Curran, however, has other thoughts on the matter. Having previously graced the offices of Quiet Storm Advertising and Mr President, Ruby is used to debunking problematic stereotypes to create inclusive advertising campaigns. Here, she dissects the idea of the genius, debunking its ‘tortured soul’ and ‘solitary pioneer’ connotations, explaining why they’re damaging to the industry and how we can begin to better ourselves.
Killing the genius myth
In some ways we are lucky to work in an industry that is sensitive to the cultural undertow – especially when we compare it to industries like banking, that, for all their protestations to the contrary, have remained relatively unchanged. We are aware that advertising has to stay relevant, understand different points of view in order to sell to them, and we’re just starting to realise that might actually involve getting some of those people involved in the process. Rather than dictating culture, we are in the process of learning to truly reflect it and contribute to it, but we can only do that by expanding our voice. And that means killing the genius myth.
Think of a famous genius. OK, so someone has just popped into your head. Now, I know some of you rebels have pre-empted me and are thinking of Kanye or Temple Grandin, but most people, and I include myself in this list, will have gone to a more traditional choice.
If you type “top 10 geniuses” into Google, this is the list you get:
Leonardo Da Vinci
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Yeah; you’re probably all thinking the same thing I was, and I’m not the first person to note the lack of anyone who is not a white dude. I won’t sit here and try and simplify the reasons why. Threads of elitism, racism, sexism and prejudice borne from our history are woven into our society. These are the roots that grew into our present, but it does not have to be our future.
“Is the advertising industry ready for an influx of Gen Z ‘snowflakes’? No. But that is why it needs them.”
Why fronting is problematic
When I was starting out in advertising, even before I’d left my course, a creative pair announced (at the pub) that they had a placement – starting as soon as the course finished. They were the first to get one. It brought up a heady swirl of feelings in the student body; intimidation, jealousy, confusion.
The pair had a bad reputation, one had allegedly written a list of students he thought would be successful and only befriended people on that list. The list was famous for having excluded, amongst others, every single female foreign student. The other one was more human, and later secretly confessed that they’d made the placement up. It wasn’t real.
But the effect of that lie was real. Everyone felt a little less secure, a little worse, like maybe they weren’t good enough. Maybe they just didn’t have what it took to get a placement. Maybe the list reflected the kind of prejudice they’d also face in industry – after all, this pair had been the first to be chosen. Tipsy tears were shed in the local McDonalds.
The effects of ‘faking it’ are deeper than you think
Fake it ’til you make it. Some of you will have been told this when it comes to ‘making it’ in advertising. I doubt the team who made it up have thought about it since they graduated. And that’s what makes fronting so insidious. Its effects seem so minimal when you’re the one doing it.
It’s a behaviour reflected in the film American Beauty where the self-professed real estate king, Buddy, tells Carolyn, “Well, call me crazy, but it is my philosophy that in order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.” And the dark thing is, there is some truth to it – people feel reassured when you look and act like the authority figures they are used to. That is precisely why it is dangerous. When you play into this, you perpetuate outdated notions of how authority looks and behaves and, nibble by nibble, you feed the myth. A myth that, as we have seen, represents a fairly narrow vision of success.
“When you play into this [myth], you perpetuate outdated notions of how authority looks and behaves.”
What is a genius?
But how can we question power structures that are so embedded into our collective consciousness? How can we challenge the well-connected, white, male, genius figure? Especially when anyone coming into industry is at the bottom – power structures work like a triangle. And we all know a ‘genius’ at the top. How can we change something so ingrained, and do we even want to? We need to start unpacking the myth. So we’ll start, as most copywriters do, with the definition of the word.
What is a genius? We’ve all been bombarded with representations since childhood, but how can we break it down? Luckily for me, Central Saint Martins associate lecturer Monika Parrinder beat me to it, with the extremely handy Genius Checklist.
Characteristics routinely associated with genius include the following:
1. The creator – usually artist, writer or scientist – who rises above the ordinary mortal, acquiring a semi-divine status, in past times as a messenger for “the original creator,” God.
2. The individual – a pioneering, solitary non-conformist.
3. The madman – links between genius and madness are legendary.
4. The intuitive person – whose work is “natural” and unlearnt and hence cannot be analysed.
5. The pioneer – who is ahead of his or her (but rarely “her”) time and possibly a misunderstood or tortured soul (see 3 above).
So let’s start with one. We’re all creators of some description – we’re on our way to being geniuses! But wait…we can’t all be geniuses. Only very special people are geniuses.
The solitary pioneer
So I guess the next point is….am I a non-conformist pioneer who does everything alone?
Let me start with this: This is not how advertising works. And everyone in industry knows it. If a solitary genius could make a successful ad single-handedly this industry would 100% let them in and would then have a big bath in all the money they’d make. Every single one of your favourite ads has a huge squad of people making it happen; from planners to editors, this is not a one-man show.
“Turns out genius is a team sport. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and we’re all surrounded by people who support us to create.”
Even coming up with the idea is a group effort – a bunch of different people creating and re-writing the brief, a creative team who responded to the brief, a creative director who honed it, an ECD who put their stamp on it. Turns out genius is a team sport. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and we’re all surrounded by people who support us to create. There’s no such thing as a totally original idea, and there’s no such thing as ‘my’ idea. So be generous.
It’s one of the hardest things to learn, especially if you’re in a creative team; there’s a natural instinct to say say “I did this / I wrote this / this was my idea.” But I would encourage people, especially young creatives, to question where this behaviour comes from. As humans we tend toward the selfish, and advertising is a competitive industry filled with insecure, artistic types. We all want to be seen. But trust me on this one: people will notice you saying “I did it,” and it doesn’t always come across well. The more generous you are with your creativity, the more mature you will sound.
Natural and unlearnt talent
This means you’re born a genius. You can’t become one. What’s graft? What’s craft? Genius is innate! It’s got nothing to do with background, or culture, or education, it transcends that. Which is why all the top historical geniuses are white men…oh wait…
This links back to the ‘madman’ thing. We’ve all seen the tortured genius trope in films and literature. And guess what, that’s now something we associate with genius; anti-social and difficult behaviour. But if we’re letting this dictate our view of people in positions of authority, we inevitably underestimate the talents of people who are consistently kind.
And it’s undeniably gendered. Think about phrases we associate with business prowess – strong, strategic, go-getting, doesn’t take no for an answer, things all associated, for better or worse, with masculinity. Kindness, empathy, emotional, words that don’t tend to be associated with genius, and yet things most of us would like from our workplaces.
“Culture is dictating who can rise. And culture is being an asshole about it.”
Bringing down the genius myth
Maybe for this industry to progress we need to start unpicking “professional” behaviour and look a little harder at the values we promote. This is why I am appealing to you to join me in bringing down the genius myth. Because when we front, when we are selfish, when we cover up how we feel, when we don’t own our weaknesses – we are promoting it.
Genius promotes homogeneity
The genius myth is not diverse. This industry has long asked why it struggles to promote women and people of colour to the top positions – this is one of the reasons why. The genius myth stops anyone who does not fit the mould from achieving higher positions.
It does not exclude them from more junior positions – this country has long promoted the idea that working hard will lead to relative success. However if we keep perpetuating the idea that some people just “have it” – and that, in the collective conscious, these people look and act a certain way – then people who don’t fit the type may not feel the highest jobs are open to them. Those positions are reserved for geniuses. Culture is dictating who can rise. And culture is being an asshole about it.
Equip yourself with tools of understanding
To understand something is to be on guard against it. This means you won’t be tricked by power trippers on your way up, and you won’t perpetuate the fronting cycle because you know that genius does not exist. At least, not in the old-fashioned-born-special-so-perfect-wow-I-could-never-be-that-great kinda way. And that means it’s ok to fail.
And that frees you.