On negativity and creativity: the essay that explains it all.

September 12, 2014

21film
Portrait of a young man as troubled copywriter…

How many times have we in Adland heard variations on the following comment regarding a member of the creative department: “Jack has talent… if only he wasn’t so negative.” Or: “Sally does good work but her negative attitude is holding her back.” The admonishment that creative people are by turns cynical, jaded and petulant –in other words, negative- is as old as creation itself. But is it a fact of life or an overblown stereotype?

Yes.

Negative emotions have always been linked to artistic expression and therefore ability. The cynical writer. The moody painter. The depressed poet. These are but a few of the many common expressions linking negativity to creativity. For perspective try switching adjectives. The cheerful poet? I rest my case.

Rather than dive into the deep ocean of thought on how and why negativity and creativity go hand in hand (pain and suffering being catalysts for art, ego and inferiority, constant rejection), let’s explore what it means in the modern advertising agency. First off, it accentuates the unofficial divide prevalent (to varying degrees) at every agency on earth. While many an account person has been called a jerk or worse, precious few of them earn the moniker moody or melancholic. No sir, that’s our job!

In weird but totally understandable fashion the jaded creative department rolls its collective eyes at the cheery frat boy/sorority girl account exec. And the uber-cheery AE’s roll their eyes back at us. I cannot count all the times I’ve seen a creative person called out by an account executive frustrated by his or her bad attitude.

Don+Draper+
Negativity & Creativity

Conversely, I cannot count all the times when a creative has bitched about an obsequious account person. The personality divide defines and disrupts most agency cultures daily. Kind of like yin and yang. Only for us it can become toxic. If we let it. Rather than expecting tigers to change their stripes I believe the solution is mutual respect and acceptance. Live and let live.

Interesting to note (for me anyway) is the typical response a creative person offers up for being so negative. These tend to fall into two very opposite camps. The first type comes off as profoundly indifferent. “Whatever. I don’t care about the shit I’m working on. I’m sick and tired of trying.” Or some such. The second (somewhat thankfully) response is that the man cares a great deal about his work but has become defeated by the dimwitted autocrats running the show. He blames his attitude on others, who thwart his ability to “do good work.” The first is sick of trying. The second is sick of dying trying.

I refuse to editorialize. To me the above paragraphs are like photographs, capturing things as they are. While neither attitude is pleasant to behold (or likely very healthy), both situations are commonplace. Negativity cohabitates with creativity. To some degree we must accept this reality and at times even respect it.

As time goes by most petulant creatives grow out of it. (I like to think I did.) Maturity, hard work and luck all play factors in the lessening of the darkness.

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Who can tame a wild creative?

Finally, there is the irony that negativity actually aids creativity. It is a paradox but the miserable creative is often an inspired one. Therefore, we must embrace edginess, cleverness and cynicism the way a cowboy appreciates a fresh horse. “That pony is mean but man is she beautiful.” The wise account executive learns how to bridle this animal but can never do so completely and not without occasionally getting bucked.

In turn, the rogue pony comes to understand that if it ever wants to leave the corral (i.e. get anywhere) it will have to accept the bridle of professionalism. Either that or get made into glue.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story a while ago. I beg your pardon. Work has been busy!

20 Responses to “On negativity and creativity: the essay that explains it all.”

  1. Kashyap said

    That’s a really insightful article, and with a great moral. People seriously need to understand and respect why creative people tend to be the way they do. I believe that negativity is just a reflection of a high amount of creative energy inside a person, going to waste. So whenever a creative person shows negativity, he/she needs to be put into something more productive, it may be work or something outside of work. But instead, people critise them, expect them to be happy and cheery amidst all chaos. I hope many agencies read this and realise how to deal with these situations.

  2. A. M. said

    This has got to be the best article I’ve read in a while. Helped me clear a bit of doubt about certain things. Thanks for sharing🙂

  3. WWriter said

    I quite recently had to sit and listen to an account executive complain about how negative and uninspiring my creatives are. I duly asked them if there was any problem with the work they delivered. The response? “The client LOVED the work.” I obviously told the mentioned AE to come to me when there’s a real problem. This article hits everything on the head. Thanks.

  4. […] I start the usual rant; here is an article I read this morning about Negativity and Creativity that basically describes how creativity and negativity go hand in hand and how sometimes, […]

  5. lateshow16 said

    This is awesome. Spot on. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Steffan1 said

    Here is a terrific companion piece to mine, about negativity and pessimism in adland: http://digiday.com/agencies/agency-people-grumpy/

  7. jcrizul said

    Explain why I get nervous before pitching an idea to a client. http://jcrizul.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/trouble-with-the-pitch/

  8. mrjasonic said

    Reblogged this on jasonicandotcom and commented:
    Nice to read

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  10. I’m late to the party on this one, but I think in a way the root of it is simpler. Creative people are creative because they are in the habit of questioning and challenging authority. Why is this the right brief? Is what we’re selling truly better, or just slightly different? Why do we believe anyone will care? Business desperately needs this sort of questioning, but there is always a point at which the questioning becomes massively counter-productive. Everybody has to just stop and just get something imperfect — or maybe even catastrophically dumb — done. And *that* is the moment where everything comes into conflict. Authority exerts itself and the creative person must stop doing what he or she does best and just go along for the ride. With maturity, you learn to shrug and say “OK, I guess I have pushed this as far as it will go, so let’s move on”. But it takes time to learn that. Or at least, it took time for me.

  11. […] this insight from Gods of Advertising: “Negative emotions have always been linked to artistic expression and therefore ability. The […]

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