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The “science” behind the creative.

One of the things I’ve come to disdain about our business is how damn serious we take it. Not the craft itself — creating, curating and choreography — but the extemporaneous crap we built around it. Stuff like process and proprietary tools; the things we fill our slides with to make people think we’re methodical and scientific.

Whether we make ads or websites, we have complicated what we do beyond what is necessary to do it well. That is why briefs are no longer brief. That is why Cannes has become a cluster f—k. That is why I am writing this post.

Planning and strategy are the progenitors of creativity. The agency gets an assignment and we formulate a team. Left-brains give us facts and insights. The right brains turn them into ideas.

In a healthy agency, the two sides work together. Part of this is collaboration. Part of it isn’t. Each assignment predicates a different balance of both. Inviolate in this are the people. The better the people the better the outcomes. Yet, as obvious and true as all this is, agencies insist on codifying every step we take.

We call it ‘our process.’

Process is how agencies mitigate the fear involved with taking risks. We create the illusion of proof to support an idea. This insight divided by that challenge equals a solution. Ta da!

Reverse alchemy occurs when an agency justifies its creative after the fact. So many ideas are the result of divine inspiration yet that’s hard to package and pitch. Cool ideas need to be scientific case studies, for award shows as well as client presentations. Therefore, we manufacture smart sounding bullshit to appease the decision-makers.

Every agency I ever worked at romanticized their data … a lot. It’s just what happens when mythmakers and bean counters work together: Collusion!

Food for thought next time we pray at the altar of agency process. We have made our agencies into churches of organized religions but divine inspiration often has nothing to do with it.

Author’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Reel Chicago

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My last post was about “responsible passion” as creative philosophy. I wrote that whatever the philosophy a creative professional has, it must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. We are craftsmen as well as salesmen. To do the job right, “you’ve got to do both.”

Now I’m going to talk about staying creatively fit and remaining relevant, which is a critical part of any creative philosophy.

I believe in what I like to call the “creative athlete.” He or she is creatively fit, physically and mentally. He relentlessly works at his craft. She takes classes and workshops. They are students of the game.

Are you a “creative athlete?”
Are you a “creative athlete?”

They are also switch hitters, in that he or she thinks about their agency from every skill position and can play there if necessary. A good copywriter is a planner. A good art director knows how to interface with clients. All are good salesman, when called upon.

The creative professional may prefer working alone or with a partner, but he or she is also a competent and enthusiastic team player.

When I was coming up at Leo Burnett, I totally related to the founder’s screed regarding the “lonely man” — a romantic figure who wrote into the wee hours. As I grew older, I had to adapt my game to accommodate the many others who ultimately affect a project.

When creative athletes become creative directors, they remain active in their core skill. They get better at the other ones. They remain teachable and open-minded.

I firmly believe in the player-coach. If I were to stop writing I would lose the ability to judge writing. I would also begin the not-very-slow fade into irrelevance.

A writer writes…
A writer writes…

Remaining relevant is, in itself, a creative philosophy.

Honestly, I don’t know how a creative director can do the job well if he or she isn’t banging away on every other brief at the agency. I suppose some do but that’s not how I roll.

A writer writes. Right?

Being fit creatively is both mental and physical. I think a good salesperson looks good doing it. They are pumped to be working one of the coolest jobs in the world. I’m not talking about jackets and skirts. Lord knows I don’t adhere to any dress code. Just don’t skulk.

Finally, I believe in the basic tenants of a liberal arts education; in that a good creative professional is knowledgeable about our culture in all its forms. He or she is a consumer of it as well as a creator.

That means we must have a working knowledge of TV shows we don’t like and music we don’t listen to. For example, I loathe The Bachelor, but I’ve seen it. I cannot stand gossip magazines, but I read my wife’s copies. And so on.
We go to movies. We make videos. We Tweet. We read.

Know your crap
Know your crap

The creative professional who hates pop culture and avoids much of it cannot possibly serve our craft. Losing interest is tantamount to giving up and, as with any good athlete, giving up is unacceptable.

Know your crap.

I hope these last two posts have been helpful. While I am hardly the consummate teacher I have done this job for over 20 years. I know a thing or ten; many of them learned the hard way.

Whether or not one agrees with me on all matters isn’t critical. Your creative philosophy can and should vary. Just as long as you have one and that you are open to changing it.

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published last week on Reel Chicago

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The other night I got to thinking about a debating class I once took at the University of Wisconsin. An article on the ages-old conflict between the Arab nations and Israel spurned the memory. Like gun control and abortion, the Middle East is a debating class chestnut.

It dawned on me how important that debating course was in shaping my career as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is highly worthwhile. (By the way, most of this paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)

I recall one assignment in particular because of how it forced me out of my comfort zone. I was asked to compose an argument for the opposite side on an issue I felt strongly about. Though I believed in a woman’s right to choose I had to argue on behalf of pro-life.

It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming my youthful passion in so many ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ardently opposed to was and is great preparation for a career in advertising.

Since then, I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about or will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I created numerous campaigns for Phillip Morris, selling cigarettes. I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.

Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.

Final aside: Now more than ever I think the above debating exercise would benefit everyone who took it, teaching empathy. Sadly, I’m guessing many would refuse to partake calling it emotional terrorism or some such.

Author’s note: a version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you have a writing project you’d like to discuss, by all means hit me up!

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Two peas in a pod?

“Much of the Simpsons’ success can be traced to two main sources: an independence from network interference and a complete dedication to the writing…”

                                       -John Ortved, The Unauthorized History of the Simpsons

 

The Simpsons TV show is the creative standard by which all comedy writing (perhaps all script writing) is measured. Few ever meet those standards. Many duck them all together. The Simpsons is also one of the most successful things ever created. Period. No part of popular culture (ours or anyone’s) is unaffected by this quirky cartoon. How and why can be summed up in the above quote.

As you might imagine, the above quote is sweet music to any creative person’s ears, especially if you’re a copywriter. Unfortunately, it is a song we seldom get to play or hear in the creative department. We get “network interference” all the time, so much so it is considered part of the “process.” And while we may have a complete dedication to the writing, few others in a typical agency do. And why should they? Writing is not their skill set. They are executives, strategists and managers. Their skill set, if you get right down to it, is to affect the writing, generally via “comments.” Comments can be good. Comments can be bad. My point is we don’t work in a vacuum.

The “curiously strong mints” campaign is my Simpsons. In my own unauthorized untold true story of Altoids, I make a similar statement to Ortved’s. A great campaign for many reasons but, in the early going, its meteoric success comes down to the same two things: autonomy and an obsession for writing. I obsessed over those headlines as my partner, Mark Faulkner obsessed over images, color scheme and typography.

In that first year we answered to no one, save for our creative director, who was only appreciative and supportive. Obviously, the client had to sign off (they were a joy by the way) but “network interference” was negligible. Why? No one in the agency cared. The budget was tiny and TV never an option. (Remember this was 1995 and this was Leo Burnett. TV was king.) Anyway, the rest is history: Wrigley bought Altoids and Lifesavers for $1.5 billion dollars.

Ultimately, many would contribute in the case study of Altoids (I’ve named them in previous posts as well as in an Adweek story) but year one it was just a creative team and an assignment.

So, what do we make of “network interference” aka the age-old battle between suit and creative? We are both on the same team, working for the same “network.” But the partnership is strained. Necessarily perhaps. And maybe that’s healthy. But for those once-in-a-lifetime campaigns –“Think Different” “Just do it.” “Curiously Strong Mints”- I’m guessing it’s the creative lonely man who called the tune.

Author’s Notes: This article first ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you would like a creative lonely man as cipher hit me up Portfolio

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Your kids call it “triggered.” When someone or something sets one of them off. It happens a lot. Snap! Snap! Snap! Teenagers. Sometimes it seems they are moving through mousetraps. Yet the genius of it is that they are not caught up in any one trap. The trap goes off. They yelp. Maybe lash out. Then let go. Maybe they return the insult. Maybe they shrug it off with a benign curse. Where are the seething long-term resentments that plagued you when bedeviled by others?

You held onto such pain, letting it fester, cultivating revenge fantasies and, whether acting on them or not, made it infinitely worse. One sprung mousetrap was all it took. The howl in your head echoed too long. Such was your pathology. An addict and introspect you could never let go. Like diabetes of the soul, your psychic wounds took forever to heal. You still remember slights from high school, about your weight for example, or lack of fighting skills. That girls didn’t think of you the way you thought of them. Such disturbances shaped your life. If only you had a word like “triggered.” Then you could have called out the bad feelings and smashed them like the mosquitoes they were. A bit of blood on the skin and some itching afterwards.

But no. You turned every bite into a bloody scar, scratching until your flesh was ragged, picking at the soar for weeks, trying to prolong its presence in your life. To this day you relish the occasional scab for the distraction it brings. You floss your teeth overly hard, drawing blood. Pleasure and pain intermingle -the physical as well as psychological. You understand cutters.

You don’t envy your daughters or any young person. Their world seems vapid and idiotic – an endless slew of You Tubes and disappearing dick pics. You must explain almost every reference to the 20th century. They do not read for pleasure and barely for school. If it’s not on their social media feeds they aren’t consuming it. Yet, you do envy their paradoxically thick skins. Their ability to “shake it off” is remarkable. Moving through the minefield of mousetraps with ease you find breathtaking.

Does a glib term like triggered render life’s brutalities benign? For all the very real talk of bullying and its fatal consequences, those maladjusted loners shooting up high schools, your children seem blissfully immune.

I’m delighted to help you with writing, content creation and creative direction! Find me: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/