What coffee can teach us about creativity

What coffee can teach us about creativity

By Peter Stephenson-Wright, Affiliate Professor at ESCP Business School

In my early years working at an advertising agency, I once presented a creative idea to a client only slightly older than myself, who asked me plaintively: “But how am I meant to know if it’s good or not?” His question was not so naive. Many years later, that’s still a question that can be difficult to answer. How indeed does one judge the quality of something as unpredictable as a creative idea, when its quality is the one thing that will set it apart?

Last month on a visit to the headquarters of the Lavazza company in Torino with participants from our Executive Master in Marketing and Creativity programme, I think I came across a good answer to that question. I innocently asked our host Matteo Marello: “If quality is so important to you, how do you judge the quality of the coffee delivered by your suppliers?”

And this is what he told us:

First, there is no consistent language or measure of taste against which to work. “Fruity” as a flavour might be good to one person, bad to another, and something different to a third. So the first step is to select samples that both sides agree represents the quality you seek, setting a standard that you aim to maintain.

Second, coffee (like creativity) is an organic product. The individual beans will vary, some will have flaws and you will never get 100% perfection. What you need to do is to live with a level of acceptable risk. With coffee, the quality of the beans will vary with the weather; in the case of the creative industries, the sources of unpredictability tend to be more human!

Third, check the provenance. While the quality of the product may be affected by conditions beyond the supplier’s direct control, if it comes from a reliable and proven source you can be re-assured that it will be the best you can have, given the prevailing circumstances.

Fourth, while you can’t measure absolute quality in the lab you can certainly check for toxins. As with coffee beans, so with creativity. Think of the primary role of research as picking up and resolving any hidden problems that may lead to ‘toxic’ results.

Finally, product quality stands or falls in its delivery. Only 25% of the final taste you experience in an espresso is down to the coffee that goes into it; the remaining 75% is determined by the espresso machine and the skill of the barista. So however good the core product, the execution will make or break it.

On reflection, what I rediscovered from our friends at Lavazza last month is that the most insightful measure of product quality is your own instinctive reaction to it. And that, by the way, is the same answer I gave to my young, questioning client all those years ago.

I’m relieved to learn now that it wasn’t such bad advice!