We are in the ideas business.” I’ve heard that expression many times throughout my career. As a copywriter, marketer, agency employee and working in a large media company. I’ve used the expression myself, sometimes modifying it to “we are in the big ideas business” for dramatic effect.

At a recent “big ideas” conference in Asia, agency creative chief Craig Davis challenged his audience with this question: “what is an idea?” The room was silent. An idea is not easy to define. That is a bit disconcerting since “we are in the ideas business.”

To answer the question Craig used a definition from Advertising Hall of Fame member James Webb Young. In Webb’s book A Technique for Producing Ideas (written in 1939 and published nearly 30 years later) he defined an idea this way: “It is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.” I like that definition. It takes some of the mystery and black magic out of the equation.

To combine old elements into a new idea is often called creativity. Creativity has become one of the last great business differentiators. And in a world where people move effortlessly between content in newspapers, blogs, video, social networks, and Internet micro-sites, differentiation is critical to success.

Virtually every part of the newspaper business (reporting, writing, editing, photographing, designing, illustrating, marketing, selling and distribution) benefits from creative thinking. We recognise its importance, espouse its value, and promise to provide time for it. And yet, creativity struggles to break the restraining chains of the status quo. The pressures of the day-to-day and the false comfort of “business as usual” mean that creativity is neglected. Sometimes, actively resisted.

Creativity is valuable because it is rare … and difficult.

Difficult because creating something new can be challenging, even threatening. Pablo Picasso said, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Newspapers are steeped in traditions and customs built over the years. Many must remain: integrity, accuracy and credibility. Without those we lose our mandate to publish.

But others — which are entrenched in processes, policies and predilections — must be destroyed in order to create media businesses with modern relevance. In practice, newspapers are better at starting things than stopping things.

And so our challenge is to maintain those vital foundations while we create “new combinations of elements” that will differentiate us from the mass of media outlets and connect us with new audiences. That may require the destruction of much-loved programmes, protocols or even products. The destruction part of creativity is much harder than starting from scratch.

How do we do it?

How do we move creativity to the front burner?

How do we create space for creativity?

That will be the subject of my next blog. Stay tuned.