Terry O’Reilly visits Mt. A as part of the Ron Joyce Speaker Series

Creative problem solving is the new key to success

I have never seen Crabtree’s auditorium as full as it was on October 26, when Terry O’Reilly came to give a presentation. The famous advertiser came to  Mt. A as part of the Ron Joyce Speaker Series. O’Reilly is best known as the host of CBC One’s series O’Reilly on Advertising and his podcast, Under the Influence. In a series of compelling arguments, he highlighted the power of creative thinking as a key to success. 

O’Reilly is a Maritimer at heart. He is charismatic yet approachable, a delicate line to tread. He was engaging from the start. O’Reilly began his talk by discussing the genius of the famous rock band Van Halen; “I am going to talk to you about a topic that I’m sure is on everyone’s mind right now…Van Halen.” An unexpected choice, which made it an intriguing hook for the audience. He proclaimed that Van Halen were rock and advertising geniuses because of their use of creative problem solving. 

A clause in their performing contract famously stated that they wanted M&Ms backstage, but absolutely no brown ones. According to O’Reilly, if they saw brown M&Ms they refused to play at the venue. Without proper context, this request would seem frivolous. In reality, the M&Ms were used as a test to ensure there was nothing amiss at the venue. Van Halen used extraordinary amounts of staging and special effects during their shows. They included specific safety protocols in their contract that the venue needed to follow in order to ensure the safety of the performers, the staff, and the audience. If there were brown M&Ms in the dish, it served as a warning sign that the promoter did not read the contract carefully, and there were likely other missed instructions. It was a unique solution to a potentially dangerous problem—ensuring the venue did what it was supposed to. 

Throughout his lecture, O’Reilly illustrated the majesty of creative problem solving and the power behind it through various stories. He expressed how many of the most innovative and successful solutions come when there are few resources. “Creativity loves constraint,” said O’Reilly. He explained that it is only when we abandon our pre-existing notions or structures that we have the freedom to be creative. The example he used to illustrate this was Kenyan farmers who had painted their chicks purple. In the area where these farmers lived, their chicks were under constant predation from hawks. Newborn chicks up until 10 weeks are slow and do not recognize a hawk’s shadow; as a result they were a veritable “all-day breakfast buffet” for the hawks. The survival rate of chicks up until 10 weeks was around 20%. The farmers needed a way of protecting the chicks with the limited resources they had. It was in a meeting with the farmers and the townsfolk that they switched from thinking like farmers to thinking like hawks.. They decided to hide the chicks in plain sight…and paint them purple. O’Reilly reasoned that purple food does not frequently naturally occur, so the hawks would not see the chicks. The farmers created a safe dye for the chicks that lasted the 10-week period and as a result, survival rate sky-rocketed past 80%. Painting the chicks purple was an innovative solution that came from limited resources and a need to abandon their way of thinking. 

O’Reilly passionately advocated for the use of creative thinking throughout his presentation and how one has to fight for the “silly ideas,” such as the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel advertising as the world’s worst hotel (and subsequently getting substantially more business), or Finnair selling airplane food in supermarkets during the pandemic. Better yet, abandon all pre-existing notions of what you thought was possible because when you do, you become creative. Audi created an engine that needed to make fewer pit stops in order to win a race because they could not make a faster vehicle. In order to promote nun-hood, a campaign O’Reilly worked on, they put a bus advertisement on the ceiling stating “If you’re looking for answers, you’re looking in the right direction.” All of these solutions were unexpected and had the audience in stitches at the absurdity of them. But as O’Reilly pointed out, they worked, they were successful. O’Reilly closed with a simple, yet powerful remark: “dare and the world will yield.” This statement highlights the power of creative thinking. When you let go of what you know, you can come up with unorthodox solutions that not only work, but excel.

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