Strategic Thinking and Creativity: The Long History of A Small Idea

Cash from Chaos, Mclaren tribute shirt

How Malcom McLaren visionary projects and ideas pioneered digital media production 

This is a guest post by Dr Ralph Kerle. 

It is difficult to know how to assess your work when you are being creative. Creativity in whatever endeavour or context is ruled by small continual loops of perception, judgment and reflection. It is not until you create a body of work in whatever practice over a long period of time that you, as a creator, gain distance and thus an understanding of your work.

Even then you begin to wonder whether the work has any immediate or long term value or has made meaningful connections or sense with or for others.  As a creator, it is not you who judges the effectiveness and quality of your creativity, it’s others.

I was reminded of this last week when I was a guest facilitator at the 1st Emergence Creativity Festival in the beautiful and remote surfing region of Margaret River in Western Australia.  As a new global festival exploring the latest developments in the digital world, it was as if Silicon Valley had come to Margaret River and it was a stunning success. Its line up of speakers included globally recognized Silicon Valley VC’s, Ben Stiller’s Film Production partner, the founder of, VP of Growth and International Product, Twitter and Lars Rasmussen, Google Earth inventor now Director of Engineering Facebook to name but a few of the high profile participants.

The most dominant theme to emerge from the presentation and networking discussion was the perceived infancy of the digital industry and its continuing search for breakthrough business models that work creatively and commercially.

The digital world though is not just a new phenomenon of 21st Century. Whilst its social media technology platforms might be, digital media production has had a long period of creative and commercial gestation in 20th Century, the history of which seems to have been ignored or never fully explored by this generation of new players.

It has its early roots in the 1960s and really began to manifest itself in the punk music movement of the 1970s through, in particular, Malcolm McLaren.

McLaren’s career began as the Svengali of the punk music movement in the UK in the late 1970’s with the Sex Pistols; his audacious work in bringing politics into popular culture through his writing and recording of the hit single “Soweto” in the dangerous no go zone of Soweto, South Africa immediately prior to the collapse of apartheid in 1980s;  his composition of the soundtrack for the global award winning British Airways “Aria” television commercial; his re-interpretation and popularisation of opera through his electronica reworking of “Carmen”  in the 1990s and his work with Catherine Denueve on the multi-media digital project “Paris” in the early 00s saw him create the creative and commercial ground rules for to-day’s digital industry.

Malcom McLaren

McLaren as a UK art student in the 1960s was greatly influenced by the Parisian based radical student group, Situationist International led by French theatre director, Guy Debord.  The Situationists theorised our worldly desires had been commoditised and packaged into aspirations represented back to us through unmediated visualisations, the content of which was controlled and distributed by the mainstream media and its self-interested backers intent on maintaining the status quo.

The full force and power of this state of being could only be understood by setting up separate temporary environments – “the society of spectacles” as Debord christened them – enabling individuals or groups to critically analyse the conditions of commoditization and how these conditions affected our everyday lives.

Debord grandly surmised “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” decades ahead of the social media platforms that rule the on-line world of to-day.

Situationist International was short lived, yet the sum of its thinking radicalised the government funded Left dominated and highly politicised European art world of the 70s trying to hold on to its high art principles in the face of the new digital technology that was democratising arts practices, bringing the means of production into mainstream culture.

Like many great creatives with entrepreneurial spirits, McLaren had stumbled upon a theory that gave sense to his practice in the newly emerging multi-media art form as it was called then as well as the means of explaining the commercialisation of his work.

Recognizing the stranglehold the major record companies had on the music industry, he saw the emergence of the new small scale digital sound recording equipment as a means of subverting their dominance and strict control of the pop music market.  He began by recording underground bands in garages using this technology previously only accessible to music acts such as the Beatles who could afford multi-million dollar recording studios. He was an early adopter of digital colour printing technology that enabled him to design posters and record covers for his acts on his own design terms without the band having to go into debt on print runs and CD duplication. You only duplicated sufficient CDs to cover your anticipated market need and you distributed your CDs through your own efforts and networks. The market had to find you!!

Ultimately, he was the first popular culture entrepreneur to realise the potential digital technology had to change existing business paradigms paving the way for all those young software coders and internet hackers to break the rules because, as McLaren exhorted, “You can”.

“Cash for chaos” was McLaren’s mantra and making money out of breaking the rules was just as important as his art work and in so doing he revealed the commercial opportunities for a new generation of creatives made up of graphic designs, musicians, painters, filmmakers, video artists and computer technicians – the tech nerds who started such companies as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter out of their bedrooms, home basements or garages.

Indeed, the very creative and commercial thinking, rule breaking and practices driving the development of the digital world that is emerging into mainstream life to-day.

Like all great entrepreneurs, McLaren was a raconteur who understood strategic thinking – what made McLaren stand out was his ability to recognise his creative strength as an ideator; his ability to see “ideas” as an art form in and of themselves with their successful manifestation being their implementation, culturally and commercially.

Like most great innovators, he failed regularly yet always restlessly sought the next new idea, rapidly exploring the monetization of his creative concepts whilst keeping true to his vision and instincts creating “situations” as a digital producer that questioned and derided the pre-packaged and sanitised aspirations and desires pedalled to the common man.

Ideas were spectacles for McLaren. They firstly had to have cultural impact to have relevance. A good idea challenged the status quo, subverted existing cultural practice and norms and asked questions of its audience pushing the edges of the popular culture entertainment market that had not yet begun to fully understand the dynamic changes digital would have on traditional media.

McLaren exemplified the attributes of a great creative leader – to be sufficiently practised to recognise his/her own ideas of substance; to be able to ignore those ideas that are not relevant to the core of his/her purpose or being; to know if the idea will stand close personal moral and ethical scrutiny and finally to have a strong entrepreneurial instinct and confidence as to why the particular idea chosen is the right and good one to focus on.

Great creatives know when a good idea questions the status quo and their practice along with it. They know when the strength of the idea will allow them to go on a journey with it, along the way slaying nay sayers and enemies, opening up new fields causing the idea to change shape in the heat of the battle, yet simultaneously graciously and at times unconsciously accepting contributions of guides and mentors who believe in its form, until ultimately it is given birth with tangibility and meaning so the process of creation can begin all over again.

McLaren taught me to recognise those tenets in my own work.

He made me question critically what I was doing, forcing me to see the positive associated with the darkness, fear and uncertainty ideas can produce as well as recognizing the positive of those who unconsciously mentored and guided me supporting and nurturing my ideas along the way.

Next time you have an idea you think is worthwhile, remember it is not the idea that is important; it is “the situation” that surrounds it and the journey with it that counts.

Oh and by the way give it time – the importance of McLaren’s ground breaking ideas in the digital world are now only becoming clear some 50 years later!

Post Script: Malcolm McLaren passed on in April 2010 at 64 – way too early for such a genius. Here is an epitaph I wrote for him and a link to his final lecture “the Magnificence of Failure” which he gave at the Handheld Learning Conference 2009 in the UK continuing to set the ground rules for the digital world.