Published in May-Jun 2021
What does it mean to be a creative; this was a thread on one of the many marketing groups not long ago. The post showed the stereotypical bearded, ripped jean wearing, body pierced, guitar-in-hand person that is to be deemed a creative. A lone creative who can see the patterns hidden from the average mind. Nothing can be further from the truth. I am more of the Drory Ben-Menachem school of thought which says you don’t have to be “a creative” to “be creative”.
Often, skill is confused with talent and face value is given more importance than the value attached to the work. The idea of a lone creative genius was propagated by a Renaissance PR man. It was first floated in 1550 by Giorgio Vasari, an Italian painter who wrote a book titled: Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in which he wrote of the ‘divine Michelangelo’ – the lone creative genius. However, from what we have learnt today, this was nonsense as Michelangelo had a small army of assistants. We have the bills and receipts to prove it; they worked on the Sistine Chapel while Michelangelo orchestrated this huge set. Seems rather less romantic than the legend of paint dripping from Michelangelo’s face as he works alone into the wee hours of the morning. Hard work is often not romantic, unless cut as a fast-paced montage accompanied by intense music running in the background of a film. Well, this montage is where novices become masters; constantly learning and practising. This montage should last as long as any creative’s career.
How do creatives hone their craft? By constantly feeding their minds. Creativity has many definitions, ranging from the obvious to the poetic. My favourite is the one that connects the seemingly unconnected – and to make connections we need elements at both ends.
Let’s take the example of a few iconic campaigns. ‘Trash Isles’ by AMV BBDO was a major social responsibility campaign aimed at encouraging the UN to recognise a part of the Pacific Ocean, named Trash Isles, as an actual country (the thrash pile in that part of the ocean was said to be as big as France). Trash Isles were given an official flag, currency (called ‘debris’) and passports made from recycled material. Former Vice President Al Gore was made an honorary citizen. Dame Judy Dench became the queen of Trash Isles and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the Minister of Defence. The impact of this campaign shows that a good idea goes a long way – an idea that germinated when someone connected the dots from a newspaper article about a huge mass of plastic floating in the Pacific. Similarly, Apple’s ‘1984’ campaign to launch the Macintosh was inspired by George Orwell’s novel of the same name. This iconic campaign would not have seen the light of day (and put Apple on the map) if a creative had not read the book and adapted the idea as a concept for an ad. Pick any compelling creative work and you will see that research, thought and craft has gone into it. It is never superficial, it is specific – and this is what separates the novices from the masters.
Yet, what we see around us (disguised as creative) is mostly generic, not specific. Now this can quickly turn into a rant about there not being enough time to work on ideation, formulaic and stereotypical expectations from clients and so on. Instead, let’s remember the words of Dee Dee Artner (author of The Millionaire Focus): “If you have time to whine then you have to find a solution,” and aim for solutions.
How do we get the creatives to create better?
Firstly, let them do their job; let them create. To have fun, follow hunches, fail and say “Nah, this doesn’t work, let’s try this instead.” For this to happen we need to give them the time and resources. Secondly, feed the mind. Read, listen, explore and be insatiably curious (ask all the dumb questions). Thirdly, don’t ever penalise them for bringing a creative idea to the table. I have suffered through many meetings where the reaction from the other side of the table is anger as opposed to excitement upon being presented with a really creative idea. Statements like “no one in the audience will get it” and “this is too creative” are thrown around. I have a standard response to the last statement (feel free to use it in your next encounter): “You came to us because you wanted creativity and this cannot be penalised. It is like going to KFC and saying how dare you serve us chicken?” The good news is that never before have creatives had more access to avenues to develop their creative skills and feed their mind. Here are a few ways that have worked for me.
Apps: How awesome are apps! Audible gets you audio books, podcasts have wisdom from every conceivable and random subject streaming in your eardrums, Calm helps you meditate, SimpleMind lets you create mind maps, Coffitivity creates background sounds from coffee shops to stimulate the brain and Unstuck does exactly as the name promises; it gets you unstuck from a creative block.
Move: Gym, walk, dance or yoga. Whatever helps to feed oxygen to your brain and stay focused. Again, there are thousands of apps to help you move physically and move ideas.
Books: I read Going Postal 15 years ago. Last week a line from that book helped us sell an idea to a client. Books – physical or digital – are the true teachers. They don’t judge you when you pause to look up a meaning, or if you forget the author’s name. They don’t become insecure that you will get smarter than them.
Courses: Udemy gives you a course for $10, LinkedIn learning, Lynda.com and MasterClass online classes from universities. None cost an arm and a leg. Don’t know how to draw? Learn how to for the price of a large pizza.
Learn From the Masters: Work from Clio, Lynx, Spikes and One Show are all available to view and learn from for free and then there will always be YouTube. The idea is not to copy, but look at the work deemed best in class and discover what it did right and how it answered the brief. Grasp at the concepts, don’t ever copy them.
Stay Curious: Constantly strive to learn and unlearn. It takes a confident person to say “I don’t know the answer,” and a brave one to admit they are scared. Ask the questions, be okay with looking like a fool, the other person already thinks that about you, so let’s confirm their view. Nothing is certain and no one knows all the answers and everyone is making it up as they go along. As Voltaire said: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
There is a simple test that identifies a master. Do they work at mastering the craft and continue to learn or not? And with such immense weapons of knowledge at our disposal, there is no excuse for not working on mastering any skill.
Atiya Zaidi is MD & ECD, BBDO Pakistan, and co-Founder, Shero Space. firstname.lastname@example.org. The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of any organisation.