If you like today's article, you'll love this book on creativity.

If you like today’s article, you’ll love this book on creativity.

Yesterday’s post about online fundraising for nonprofits got me thinking.

It’s an incredible demonstration of a simple principle. Simple, but powerful. Because this principle can create breakthroughs that transform entire industries.

In yesterday’s post, I showed how to take an approach (video sales letters) that’s worked in other industries (commercial or “for profit” direct response companies) and apply in another industry (nonprofit) where it hasn’t been used previously.

In short, stealing.

This is a very simple idea. And one that has been used over and over again.

Take the world of art, for example. Austin Kleon wrote a great book that should be a wake-up call for anyone who considers themselves to be “creative.” It’s called Steal Like an Artist. It’s written for artists, but it applies equally to all creativity.

The fundamental principle of that book is that the greatest creativity comes from stealing ideas — or if you don’t like that term, “being inspired by” — and making them your own.

David Bowie, arguably an immensely “creative” artist, is quoted in that book as saying, “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”

William Ralph Inge, a priest and prolific author on spirituality and religion is also quoted as saying, “What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”

Short of directly copying someone else’s work (sampling, for example, in music), Francis Ford Coppola hit the nail on the head. He said, “We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.”

Einstein himself said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

The lists of quotes I could dig up goes on and on, but I don’t want to bore you with them.

What you’ll find, if you look hard enough, is that everything stands on what came before it.

Nearly every great movie made today is based on a story that came before it, told again but in a new way.

George Lucas wrote Star Wars after reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which outlined the universal story of the hero’s journey, told thousands of times before.

Even Shakespeare was using formulas for story and character, simply putting a new spin on them.

If you’re into this in terms of writing and story, there’s an interesting site called TV Tropes that’s a wiki all about the different formulas, or tropes, used in fiction on TV and elsewhere.

Music is very much the same way.

I recently bought a book called Chord Progressions for Songwriters. It’s a behemoth book that examines, in detail, what the author Richard Scott calls “Money Chords.” That is, harmonic progressions that have consistently been used throughout time to create music that resonates with the masses — and drives record sales.

Some may think this a jaded way to look at the creation of music. But there is certainly substance to using this to inspire your creativity.

While turned into a rant for comedic purposes, musician Rob Paravonian did a very interesting sketch that went viral a few years back about a famous classical work, Pachelbel’s Canon… That also (maybe accidentally) showed how many diverse-sounding songs can come out of a single stolen chord progression… Hit songs by Aerosmith, Blues Traveler, Green Day, Matchbox Twenty, Bush, U2, Natalie Imbruglia, Avril Lavigne, Twisted Sister, Bob Marley, and The Beatles, as well as the folk song “One Tin Soldier” and the theme to Laverne and Shirley… They all started with the same fundamental chord progression as Canon in D, and ended up with new works of art. (The video is here.)

I tend to think that there’s not much new under the sun. Mostly, a new spin on what came before.

And while it’s certainly admirable if you can create something from nothing, that’s not an easy way to create breakthroughs. And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about art breakthroughs, or business breakthroughs, or breakthroughs in any other area.

The best way to create breakthroughs is by taking an idea that worked in one context, and applying it to another.

Let’s apply this to a marketing context.

A year or two ago, I heard that a partner in a very big direct marketing company with many divisions sat down with top marketers from each division. He asked them how many of them could explain a single core teaching of at least one current important direct marketing thinker from outside the company. Nobody raised their hand. He told them, “That’s a problem.”

A controversial but maybe very accurate term for what happens in situations like this is “marketing incest.” In short, if all your ideas come from a small group of people who think like you, you’re not going to have very robust marketing ideas. You’ll tend to get caught in a rut, and continuously do things the same way because “that’s how we’ve always done them.” And missing out on huge opportunities as a result.

I pointed this out with nonprofits yesterday, but commercial marketers in all industries are equally guilty in their own ways.

We’re all equally guilty in our own ways.

We find a groove, and we get in it. But the more we ride the groove, the more it becomes a rut. And then it’s hard to change course — even if a new course would help you get where you want to go faster.

Innovative thinkers don’t get that way by thinking outside the box. They get that way through curiosity. Curiosity that extends beyond their primary pursuits.

If you want to be an idea person, the ideas don’t have to be yours. You just have to look far and wide for good ideas that can find success when applied in a new context.

It’s why I’m an insatiable consumer of content. Not just marketing. Business and sales, too. But beyond that. Mainstream news. Finance. Documentaries of all stripes. Art. Culture. The works.

And while part of me is just getting lost in these different experiences, there’s also the marketing part of my mind that’s always on the lookout for ideas that can be transplanted. Inspiration that can be stolen and used as the seed of something new.

You never know where your next great breakthrough will come from.

But if you’re always looking for it, you can be confident you’ll find it somewhere. And more likely than not, it will be somewhere outside the realm of raw creativity.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr

Editor, Breakthrough Marketing Secrets

P.S. — Did you know Henry Ford, widely mis-credited as the inventor of the assembly line, was hundreds of years behind its original invention? The assembly line was common in China for centuries before, was described as “division of labor” in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and was even used in Venice to build ships as early as the year 1104. In fact, Ransom Olds, namesake of Oldsmobile, even used an assembly line to build cars more than 10 years before the Model T ever hit the streets. Ford’s contribution was powered conveyor belts — adding huge value and speed to the process — but by and large he “stole” the assembly line process to create his own breakthrough in the automobile manufacturing process.