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From a business perspective, “creative process” is an oxymoron. Yet, every agency has one. In the age of projects (vs. client relationships) the process looks like hours worked. PM’s and AE’s must estimate how many people to put on a creative project and how many hours they will spend doing it.

With clients choosing agencies like restaurants and ordering a la carte off our menus, a neophyte might think it would be easy calculating the bill. Unfortunately, it is harder than ever.

From a creative perspective, the process defies analytics. The time frame for making creative was, is and always will be a guessing game, fraught with variables. How long does it take to come up with an idea – Two hours? Two days? Two weeks? And how long does it take to flesh out the idea? And how many ideas do you require?

When guessing how long a project will take to complete the guessers would ideally need to calibrate how different individuals create, which is unique. For example, Sally likes to work alone. Jack and Jill work best as a team and Bill, Fred and Mary love collaborating. And what about nights, when I like to write? If one calculated how many hours I play with a paragraph of body copy we’d be over budget on everything.

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In the good old days, an agency had a relationship with a client (with a yearly nut augmented by media commissions), which allowed for expanding and contracting creative resources, contingent upon the growing or shrinking demands of each assignment. Therefore, creative directors could deal in real time, adjusting resources based on immediate needs, wants and capability variables. In a fire drill, we called in resources with impunity. On a pitch, we might give a bunch of newbies a crack. And so on. Though still a process, it was far more fluid and organic than what we have now. The creative department did not have finite budgetary limits.

As a manager, I’m all for tightening the screws and figuring shit out. As a creative director, I know it seldom works that way.

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Jabbing at the keyboard like a monkey…

I’ve written three novels, dozens of short stories, probably thousands of ads, as well as maintained this and other blogs, and I composed all of that content with basically one finger: the index on my right hand.

Weird right? Most professional writers know how to type. Well, one finger has been my normal since I started using machines to compose text.

In high school and then college, I wrote on a typewriter given to me by my father. Back then I drank and smoked (what serious writer didn’t?) and I used my left hand for that and my right to work. Needless to say, I did a lot of both. It all became second nature, especially the booze.

As time went by I stopped drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes but I never learned to properly type. That’s not to say I didn’t evolve; I did. Like every writer, I memorized the keyboard. Subsequently, my finger tapping became faster and faster. I never timed it but when I’m in the zone I can probably hammer out forty or fifty words a minute, maybe more.

I use my cell phone keyboard the same way.

This will never change. I’ve gotten too competent in my dysfunctional approach to bother learning another method.

Oddly, I don’t know a single person who types like I do. All of you seem to engage your keyboards properly. Even you non-professional writers. Am I wrong about this? If so, let me know. I’m curious: Am I the only one-fingered typist who is not a child or a monkey?

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Lion gets drunk jumps shark…

In a funky, charmingly meandering essay for the Wall Street Journal, the legendary San Francisco adman, Jeff Goodby takes the Cannes Advertising Festival to the woodshed, albeit the long way, calling it more of a “plumber’s or industrial roofing convention” than a celebration of the “big and famous and mind blowing.” He acknowledges that he is a “willing junkie for ingenious content delivery systems” (really, Jeff?) but clearly misses the good old days when ‘everyone knew who was doing the greatest shit in the world.’

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Ad Lion, Jeff Goodby rattles his cage…

His point is a valid one, which can be gotten to through many doors. Let me take a crack at a few. First off, about 10 or 15 years ago, in a vainglorious attempt to be modern (aka digital & social) and (obviously) to make tons more money, Cannes began adding myriad technical categories some so intricate they defy explanation. Applications. Emojis. Banners. Widgets. Tools. The kitchen sink. All of it, said Cannes, has the possibility of winning a Lion –be it bronze, silver, gold, glass or titanium. In addition, the festival created massive new groups, including public relations, healthcare and social causes. The advertising categories were still there, of course, and you could enter them six ways to Sunday, depending on budgets and other criteria.

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Your Titanium Grand Prix winner at Cannes: an emoji

For agencies and the like, entries became an advanced class in spending money. Take a look at these numbers, made even more conspicuous because they were tallied during the recession.

While this was going on the typically blatant corruption bloomed like algae. After all, all these new categories required evermore judges. Most if not every judge also has stuff in the show. So many shoulders rubbing together is bound to create mutual back scratching. And stabbing. It got so bad a couple years ago the creative leader of one holding company accused another holding company of “killing” the competition, among other voter schemes.

In the end, you get a bouillabaisse so big, deep and full of oddities one wonders if it means anything to anyone. Anyway, Jeff wonders. How can you not? Let’s look at some of the biggest prizes awarded in 2015. A fish-shaped lead sinker is deemed the greatest design in the world. A slew of iPhone pictures garner the Lion for best outdoor advertising in the world. A pizza-shaped emoji wins for best whatever-it-is in the world.

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The winner for best design: a lead fish

Funny. Folks used to joke that WPP’s big boss, Martin Sorrell got his start, not making ads, but selling widgets. Well, he gets the last laugh. Because it now appears that’s what this festival is all about.

(Full disclosure: Every agency I’ve ever worked at has participated in Cannes. I’ve been to Cannes seven times, four drunk, three sober. I’ve entered a bunch of work at Cannes. I’ve even won a few Lions. Twice, I’ve given speeches at Cannes. So, yes, I’ve bowed before the Golden Lion. I’ve played his Game of Thrones.)

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I love it when I crack the code on a piece of creative. You might not believe me but I love it even more when someone in my group cracks the code on a piece of creative. Either way, this was, is and always will be the best part of my job.

Which is as it should be. It doesn’t matter how big or small the job or what medium it’s in. That first peek at something that works, that will work, that will please the person paying for it, is bliss. You won’t believe me again but seeing a set of banners that totally nails the brief is as intoxicating as looking at a tight and right storyboard for a TV commercial. Knowing to one’s core that a piece of creative is capable of winning the day is, if I remember correctly and I do, like that first sip of that first martini: so freaking good!

Whether it comes right away or is the result of toiling, bearing witness to the birth of a healthy campaign is why I get up in the morning and go to work. Everything else -operations, meetings and conference calls- is work. It’s the job part of the job. The creative piece is the gift. And as with any good gift the giver feels as good or better than the receiver. Which is also as it should be.

Within the last two weeks I’ve gotten to see such a thing. Twice. Two different projects. With differing people involved, and me to a certain extent. How lucky am I? While it would not be professional of me to discuss specifics or showcase the work, I most certainly can write about the joy that it brought.

So much of what we do in Adland is fraught with anxiety and stress. We bicker over strategy and deliverables and what’s right and what’s wrong that we often forget that in the delivery room are babies (and I don’t mean the creatives). New campaigns, hours old, are things worth celebrating. Of course, we seldom do. They’re fragile here. And besides now we must prep them for clients, tightening the copy, tweaking the art direction, responding to the pokes and prods of our fellows, and otherwise getting them ready for that precarious run up the flagpole.

But sometimes even in this newbie state you know everything is going to be all right. You just know. Internally, with the client, and even the consumer you know you are holding the Ace of Spades.

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“Hey you!”

Someone I greatly respect expressed concerns that my recent post documenting “bad client behavior” and “deeply challenging agency politics” was just inviting trouble. In other words he was afraid I was angering sleeping giants and that said giants would hurt me. To quote him: “Do you think the people you’re criticizing will repent or resent?”

First of all, I’m not so stupid as to call anyone out by name that could hurt my interests or me. Secondly, I look for bigger themes than straight up hating. For example, my last post was more about the rampant fear of creativity in Adland than difficult clients. The corrosive effects of fear on creativity make for bad clients, bad creative directors and bad ads.

That said my respected peer’s concern is a valid one. Or it was, anyway. Commenting about one’s clients, even positively, used to be grounds for swift reprisals –from them as well as your own superiors, whichever came first. These days, things are a lot more socially transparent. Casual Friday has extended into just about every facet of our work lives, creating open and even chaotic working environments. Everyone has strong opinions and most of us express them freely.

Like it or not, the days of companies “controlling their message” are over. Corporate PR might well be a relic of last century. Facebook, twitter and myriad other online critics, watch dogs and finger-pointers will not tolerate “spin.” They call bullshit at the drop of a buzzword. Not too long ago I would get into fairly contentious debates with principals in my own company about what was appropriate social behavior for our clients and us. Allegedly controversial things I wrote about on this blog were just icebreakers to far bigger discussions. Yes, there were consequences.

But what the hell else am I going to write? Pimp jobs for my agency? Ad reviews? Come on. Look, there are things I love and hate about this business. Covering those topics is what makes Gods of Advertising special –to me anyway. Call me crazy but I believe sharing on what works means it’s incrementally more likely to keep working. Conversely, writing honestly about the negatives might just nudge Adland in a slightly better direction. Naïve? Of course. But what blogger isn’t?

I think fear of creativity is a legitimate theme and a provocative one. Ergo it’s the perfect stuff for we ad practitioners to think, write and talk about. I’m utterly convinced that bravery in writing –any writing- is, after craft, all that matters. Anyone disagree with me? I rest my case.

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