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Summary: Crossover Creativity: Real-life stories about where creativity comes from by Dave Trott

Key Takeaways

  • Do you want to learn how to be more creative and productive, in any field or situation? Do you want to discover how to combine existing elements from different domains and contexts in novel and useful ways? If so, you might want to read the book Crossover Creativity: Real-life stories about where creativity comes from by Dave Trott.
  • In this article, we will provide you with a summary and review of the book, and highlight the main points and takeaways. We will also share some of the stories and examples that the author presents, and how you can use them to enhance your creativity and performance. If you are interested in learning more, keep reading!


Stand out from the competition by embracing “crossover creativity,” says creative director Dave Trott. Learn what marketers who are primarily relying on algorithmic formulas are doing wrong, and develop the mind-set you need to seize opportunities today. Taking inspiration from creative people and companies such as Picasso, Banksy and IBM, Trott demonstrates how going against the flow and connecting unexpected elements can result in moments of creative genius. Learn why effective branding is about so much more than dull facts and following trends, and why telling the truth is the best tactic.

Summary: Crossover Creativity: Real-life stories about where creativity comes from by Dave Trott


  • Crossover creativity is the result of combining two seemingly disconnected ideas.
  • To find creative solutions, be different, respond to challenges quickly, and reduce complexity.
  • Overcome your fear of criticism and of going against the flow to seize opportunities.
  • The quality of your brief can make or break your campaign’s success.
  • Good branding requires a human element, so think beyond the numbers.
  • Deliver a message that’s entertaining, simple and true.
  • Accidents can inspire unexpected creativity. Mistakes can sink your campaign.
  • Be wary of unbelievable promises. You’re selling a product, not an idea.


Crossover creativity is the result of combining two seemingly disconnected ideas.

When you generate a creative idea, you harness the power of “recombinant thinking.” To understand recombinant thinking, imagine two different ideas plotted on a Venn diagram – the intersection area of these ideas is where something new takes form. New ideas occur when a reaction takes place between two existing things that you combine, resulting in a moment of “crossover creativity.” Maximize your chances of generating a new idea by remaining open to new perspectives and doing things differently, even if it disrupts your current understanding and patterns.

“All we have to do is collect lots of different, unconnected things to put together. That’s crossover creativity.”

Leveraging the potential of crossover creativity demands that you challenge traditional Western concepts of intelligence, especially those that dominate in marketing and advertising: Many view theoretical thinking as more valuable than practical thinking, but creative ideas have little value unless you can give them a practical application.

Act on your ideas quickly and differentiate them from the thousands of ideas of other people. Remember, if “you snooze, you lose.” Most people think of Pablo Picasso as Cubism’s creator and Thomas Edison as the light bulb’s inventor, for example. Often, they don’t consider their co-creators, Georges Braque and Joseph Swan, because those individuals did not position themselves as top innovators in the public’s eye.

To find creative solutions, be different, respond to challenges quickly, and reduce complexity.

Being different can give you a competitive advantage. For example, if you grew up in a working-class neighborhood, you might have more “street smarts” than competitors who grew up in the middle class. Your history of anticipating challenges helps you think several steps ahead of those with a middle-class background. The world has enough conventional thinkers, so think differently, and you’ll stand out from the pack.

Sometimes, you may encounter individuals within your organization, such as middle managers, who stand in the way of idea generation, perhaps because they obsess over irrelevant minutiae, are overly cautious, worry too much about the propriety of decisions and constantly refer matters to committees, slowing down the creative process. Eschewing agility for a scrupulous observation of process can result in dull advertisements.

“These are…destructive tactics for sabotaging decision-making processes in all organizations.”

When facing situations that require fast, immediate solutions, you can either take action – responding to the “clarity of desperation” – or do nothing. While it may feel tempting to brainstorm a nonexistent perfect solution, you risk losing control of the situation entirely if you fail to act by overcomplicating matters.

In advertising, the most memorable, effective ads explain complexity in the simplest manner possible, using simple, relatable examples. Use strong wording to make your ideas and advertisements go viral rather than focusing primarily on visuals. Most people find it easier to describe ideas with a verbal component than to explain ideas conveyed visually only. Don’t speak to your target audience in industry-speak – communicate with them in words and phrases they actually use.

Overcome your fear of criticism and of going against the flow to seize opportunities.

Many advertisers believe they can connect best with their digital consumers by eschewing traditional forms of advertising and, instead, reaching out to them via new media forms. But simply using digital media doesn’t equate to doing something new and different. Creatives who stand out challenge the status quo, disrupting convention. Graffiti artist Banksy, for example, sees opportunities where most people would see challenges: He looks for spaces where he’s not allowed to create art, then finds a way to do so, intentionally causing problems and grabbing attention. Don’t be overly afraid of attracting criticism if you’re doing something different. Whether your critics include planners, clients, your peers or even yourself, there’s no need to automatically equate criticism with being wrong.

“Most creative people behave like an enfant terrible. They look for problems, or they create problems because that’s where the fun is.”

The world’s most successful people tend to share the same motto: “Don’t play the game. Change the game.” You may be afraid to challenge the status quo or go against the flow because you might look stupid. However, if you feel you could do something better and have a novel approach to a situation, you likely aren’t alone. Others share your beliefs but are too afraid to speak out.

For example, IBM’s president, Thomas Watson, went against the flow when other industry leaders began making budget cuts and laying off staff after the stock market crashed in 1929. Rather than worrying about plummeting share prices, Watson kept all IBM factories open and invested 6% of the company’s revenue in creating a new corporate research laboratory. This allowed IBM to innovate and, in 1933, following the Social Security Act, to provide companies with the calculating and tabulating machines they needed to comply with the new law. IBM’s revenue increased by more than 80% between 1935 and 1939 because its leader saw opportunities where others saw only problems.

The quality of your brief can make or break your campaign’s success.

When you’re trying to solve a problem, it can help to ask “the five whys” – a concept developed by Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos helped popularize this process: When facing a problem, he asks, “why?” five consecutive times, scrutinizing each answer he receives until he gets to the root of an issue. This method will prevent you from jumping to conclusions while helping you spot unexpected and creative solutions.

When writing your brief, follow the Socratic method: State a position; question that position by stating an exception to it; generate a new position; and then question that position. Repeat this process until you eventually identify a new possibility you hadn’t seen before – a point Socrates refers to as “aporia.” When you get your big idea, do more than convey it in dull facts in your brief. Use your brief to make unexpected connections, grabbing the reader’s attention by showcasing your compelling, unconventional thinking.

“Writing, like everything, is about thinking.”

Your brief should clarify the function of your campaign when outlining your goals, as “form follows function.” When considering how best to approach your campaign, remember that your actual client is the consumer, not the company that hired you to create an ad. Your ad won’t work if its content satisfies the requirements of your paying client but doesn’t resonate with consumers. The best briefs tell a creative department what to do without explicitly detailing how to do it, allowing creatives to explore options. Before creatives start working on a brief, it’s essential that they question it, ensuring it can hold up under scrutiny.

Good branding requires a human element, so think beyond the numbers.

Picasso would tell people buyers didn’t want his paintings; they wanted his signature. A brand establishes value, differentiating itself from ordinary, “rubbish” things. Artist Tracey Emin can inspire people to pay a lot to hang framed, crumpled Marlboro cigarette packages on their walls because she has signed them – that’s branding.

Don’t leave targeting up to an algorithm designed for the mass market; rather, take the time to understand your audience: Do they prefer more literary, “quality” writing, or do they prefer you to communicate the facts as quickly as possible? Where can you reach them, and when is best?

“Data is just numbers, it can’t provide conclusions, that’s not its job. Because a human should possess software that data doesn’t: common sense.”

Don’t just mimic current trendsetters when attempting to connect to your target demographic. Try to authentically connect with your audience instead, ensuring your brand has longevity. Don’t try to appeal to everyone, everywhere. Stake out your niche in the market, and don’t be afraid to choose a position, especially if you’re a smaller brand. Don’t just algorithmically try to appeal to average demographics either, as the perfectly average user doesn’t exist. Everyone is unique, and it’s best to market your products with some user flexibility in mind, empowering people to make your product work for them.

Deliver a message that’s entertaining, simple and true.

Walt Disney famously said: “We have to entertain in order to educate because the other way round doesn’t work.” The same holds for advertising: Your audience isn’t going to connect with dry data alone. Don’t lecture your audience; instead, aim to communicate by mirroring their way of speaking to one another and developing an understanding of what they truly want. Many agencies fail to create ads that people notice and remember and which compel them to act, despite knowing that these are the components of a successful ad. Advertisers often fall prey to “knowledge neglect”: Because entire departments fixate on creating advertisements that embody brand purpose alone, advertisers dismiss their own common sense, thus failing to connect the message to a desired consumer action.

“We’ve forgotten the purpose of advertising is: Get noticed, remembered and acted upon. Not merely as a container for a banal brand purpose.”

Branding is about taking the truth and delivering it to your audience in a creative, unexpected way. People aren’t trying to buy a brand – they want to buy a product, so aim to uncover the truth of why this product appeals to people. Don’t overly complicate your message. Often, the most straightforward message is the most efficient. Hiding behind complexity may reveal a lack of in-depth understanding of your customer and product.

Accidents can inspire unexpected creativity. Mistakes can sink your campaign.

You never know in advance where you’ll find inspiration. Still, you’ll be less likely to find it by consuming others’ ideas in art galleries and books than in unexpected, everyday contexts. Often, when accidents happen, such as casting mistakes or booking the wrong location, you may discover unforeseen creative opportunities. For example, in the mid-1950s, a military engineer was experimenting with applications for the radar magnetron when he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. This accident later inspired the invention of the microwave.

“Accidents can be creative, but what use is that to us?”

When trying to create a winning solution, you must make sure you truly understand the problem to avoid actualizing ideas that don’t work. Be wary of confusing subjective beliefs with facts. For example, Fever Tree launched a gin ad that claimed: “75% of your gin & tonic is mixer, shouldn’t you buy the best mixer?” The campaign didn’t entirely have Fever Tree’s desired effects, with many commenters insisting they’d got their mixer ratios wrong.

You can’t depend entirely on quantitative data to help you understand a problem and generate solutions. People may have an incentive to manipulate data, so it’s essential to anticipate the possibility of people “gaming” the numbers to tell their desired narrative. Even if you get all your facts correct, there’s always the possibility that your audience will misunderstand you. Advertisers must focus on empathizing with their target’s perspective enough to prevent such misunderstandings.

Be wary of unbelievable promises. You’re selling a product, not an idea.

Advertisers have two tasks: delivering information and doing so in an interesting, enjoyable way. When creating ads, your aim isn’t to give consumers a diatribe about your brand purpose but to find a creative way to stick in consumers’ minds when they’re about to make a purchase.

For example, Fram oil filters got the actor who plays Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad to endorse their product, getting him to say, “It’s the orange one, numb nuts,” over the packshot. The target audience – predominantly young men working on cars – could easily remember this line when they went to make a purchase. This advertising tactic leverages “joined-up thinking”: Viewers get the information they need to make a purchase, and it doesn’t matter if they forget the brand name.

“We come, uninvited, into people’s lives; nobody wants advertising, that’s why we have to make the experience enjoyable, of course.”

Today, marketers are predominantly focused on “brand purpose” advertising: They operate with the assumption that consumers will believe promises they’re too savvy to believe themselves – that is, that products will improve their lives in intangible, extraordinary ways. These ads have slogans like “Find Your Now” and “Be Your Truth.” Stop promising consumers that products will fulfill their deep, unmet, impossible desires, such as the need for power or peace, and focus more on making promises you believe in yourself.

About the Author

Dave Trott is a creative director, copywriter and the author of several books, such as One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking and Creative Blindness (And How to Cure It): Real-Life Stories of Remarkable Creative Vision.


Creativity, Business, Advertising, Psychology, Innovation, Storytelling, Personal Development, Motivation, Success, Education.


The book is based on the idea that creativity is not a mysterious gift or talent, but a skill that can be learned and improved by anyone. The book argues that creativity is not about coming up with something new from nothing, but about combining existing elements from different domains and contexts in novel and useful ways. The book calls this process crossover creativity, and shows how it can be applied to various fields and situations, such as advertising, business, sport, art, science, and everyday life. The book consists of 100 short stories, each illustrating a different example of crossover creativity in action, and each ending with a key takeaway or lesson. The stories are drawn from the personal and professional experiences of the author, who is a renowned creative director and copywriter, as well as from the examples of various people who have used crossover creativity to solve problems, innovate, and achieve success, such as Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Muhammad Ali, and Marie Curie.

The book is a fascinating and entertaining read, that provides a wealth of insights and inspiration for anyone who wants to enhance their creativity and performance. The author writes with wit, humor, and simplicity, and makes complex and abstract concepts easy to understand and apply. The book is well-organized and concise, and each story is engaging and informative, with a clear and relevant message. The book is not only educational, but also motivational, and encourages readers to look at the world differently, and to find and use the hidden connections and opportunities that exist everywhere. The book is suitable for anyone who wants to improve their creativity and productivity, and who is willing to learn from other domains and disciplines.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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