beer
When I started off in the advertising industry of the early 90s, I caught the tail end of the decadent era. Those stories about fancy cars, Colombian nose-candy and six-martini lunches are rooted in truth.

Things have changed a lot since then.

Creativity can’t be measured by the hour

The Sarbanes-Oxley act forced big agencies to be far more accountable and transparent. The advertising industry was forced to measure its value in units of time. And that’s not necessarily a good thing because creativity can’t be measured by the hour. It forced advertising creatives to cut down on their long, boozy lunches and spend more time munching bland sandwiches at their desk like the rest of the corporate world.

Discussions with fellow crusty advertising creatives often turned to “things aren’t as good as they used to be” conversations. And we wondered if the lunchtime alcohol we used to consume actually helped us come up with more interesting ideas. So legendary ad man John Jessop and I teamed up with marketing magazine The Drum to find out. We recruited 18 advertising creatives, split them into two teams and set about discovering what would happen when we enforced sobriety on half of our subjects and encouraged drunkenness in the rest.

Please note: this experiment was NOT scientifically rigorous. If any universities are interested in testing it properly, give me a shout!

Here’s an insight into the experiment:

The results surprised us.

Let’s get a couple of hiccups out of the way

This experiment didn’t run perfectly smoothly. Which, in hindsight, isn’t that surprising. Less than an hour into the experiment we had to send a couple of members of the alcohol team home when we found one of them passed out behind a chair. So we ended up with 7 members of that group instead of 9.

Shortly afterward, we had to deal with a mutiny from the sober team who were convinced that they deserved a beer. Clearly, even in their un-addled state, they had failed to understand the premise of the experiment. Or – more likely – failed to care.

However, even although this wasn’t progressing under strict laboratory conditions, the night still produced some pretty interesting results.

But I thought alcohol made you sluggish

One of the things we wanted to measure was the level of productivity over time. Particularly to see if alcohol slowed you down. So we asked the teams to note down the time they came up with each idea. And the results were entirely unexpected. The alcohol team was by far the more consistent in producing ideas throughout the night. And they produced significantly more of them over the three hour test period than their sober counterparts did.

I really wasn’t expecting that! But it was then time to find out if they had sacrificed quality for quantity. Because a larger mountain of idea-turds isn’t what anyone wants to deal with.

A larger mountain of idea-turds isn’t what anyone wants

Does quality thinking live inside a beer can?

The next stage was judging the strength of the ideas. Clearly, this is subjective, so we did it three different ways to make sure we had different opinions.

We started by selecting the best 5 ideas produced by each group and sketched them up in the same style so that you couldn’t tell which group did what. We then put these 10 ideas before a jury of top advertising creative directors. They judged each idea on how fresh it was, how well it answered the brief and how practical it was to execute. Collectively, they ranked them from best to worst.

It started off well for the tea-totalers. The idea that was rated highest came from the sober team. But the next 4 ideas came from the alcohol team. In this test, the boozers may have missed out on the top spot but clearly won in the rankings.

Next, we put the ideas before a focus group of everyday people. And again they ranked the ideas in a very similar order.

And finally, an online survey gave us almost identical results.

It was official. The alcohol team won hands down.

Is there any science here?

Alcohol significantly improved people’s ability to solve the problems

You may just see this as a piece of frivolous whimsy but some academic studies back this up. In 2012, researchers at the University of Illinois gave 40 participants a small amount of alcohol and measured their success on a remote association test. (That’s where you’re provided with three words and you’re asked to come up with another word that works with each of them to create a two-word phrase.) The research showed that alcohol significantly improved people’s ability to solve the problems.

The theory is that alcohol impairs your ability to focus. In most productivity tasks, that’s a bad thing – but with creative thinking, it’s a benefit. It opens you up to more possibilities and stops you getting stuck in mental ruts.

In this case, alcohol can, in fact, improve your performance.

It seems that alcohol can actually be useful for generating ideas.Click To Tweet

Should I install a drinks cabinet in my office?

It seems that alcohol can actually be useful for generating ideas. So do I recommend you taking jugs of Margaritas to your next meeting? The answer is a resounding ‘potentially’. It all depends on:

  • The culture of your company
  • How many attendees are on the 12 step program
  • How much you value your job
  • Whether you drive to work
  • And whether your company lets you put tequila on expenses

So I’ll stop short of recommending that you use booze as a creative lubricant. I’ll just say you shouldn’t discount it.

And, if your company culture allows, give it a shot. Whatever liquor is in that shot is up to you.

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When I started off in the advertising industry of the early 90s, I caught the tail end of the decadent era. Those stories about fancy cars, Colombian nose-candy and six-martini lunches are rooted in truth. Things have changed a lot since then. The Sarbanes-Oxley act forced big agencies to be far...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at OpenForIdeas.org
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.