Creativity (3)

[June 20, 2011]

What kind of environment encourages creativity?

The biographies of great artists tell us the answer is ambiguous. Throughout history, thousands have reached artistic heights despite physical and mental disability, war, disease, poverty and family dynamics that would make most people catatonic. And, as always, they’ve succeeded despite the incomprehension of their peers.

By that standard, the relative comfort of agency life should remove all barriers to creative success. Surely, if Frédéric Chopin could write his F-minor Ballade while experiencing late-stage tuberculosis, you, with your free cappuccino maker and left over deli sandwiches, should have no trouble mining your creative ore.

But what’s missing from this picture is the modern office, with its manufacturing mentality and the underlying assumption that human productivity can be tested, quantified and predicted from statistical models.

Emerging from those models is the belief that creativity can be sparked by mechanical processes. Accordingly, agency life is littered with creative briefs, PowerPoints, white papers, webinars and brainstorming sessions designed to stimulate, channel and improve creative output.

So great is the faith in these practices that no one is willing to admit how little they contribute to the creative process.

That’s because the real work of developing and realizing a creative strategy happens on a one-to-one basis. It starts with moments of silence needed to imagine—not visual vocabulary or a verbal design—but the thought process that will channel and unfold your message to consumers. At base, that’s what a creative strategy is: a way of seeing the world.

As such, it begins as the intellectual property of the creative team who has ownership of the project. It’s not a machine to be designed by committee, the way Nike lets you build a pair of cross-trainers.

The next step includes translating that train of thought into visual/verbal metaphors, those fascinatingly ambiguous objects that move consumers to action. Simultaneously, the team must also develop a positioning and rationale for what evolves next: the first external manifestation of the concept.

This external face of the concept itself, however, only a channel through which the concept message can flow. It’s not the concept and it’s certainly not an “execution.” Execution comes later, in the creative development process, the pragmatic, day-to-day wrangling that results in what your audience will eventually interact with.

But just as there are hundreds of possible concept channels we could create for each concept, so there are hundreds of possible executions of each channel. Making those choices takes talent, experience, diplomacy—and silence.

Walk a mile in their shoes, then, and see how little time your Creative team has for meetings, check-ins, previews, webinars, and the seemingly infinite series of e-mails from colleagues about the article about the study about the statistic about the trend…and the best practice to address each.

Instead, Creatives need time alone to think, explore, research and experiment. They also need time to crash into a few dead ends, a time-honored way to define the scope and nature of the creative problem to be solved.

Regrettably, that time is cut short by inefficient client communication and management—the kind that expects your creative team to function like a surreal amalgam of auto mechanic, tailor, plumber, psychologist and wait staff. Anyone who has gone through 10+ rounds on a set of direct mail pieces, a retail display or an offer-driven web-banner knows what I’m talking about.

“The schedule is really tight,” one hears every day of the week. Yet, strangely, there’s always more time for dithering, second guessing or trawling the client’s mind—by mental telepathy—to dredge up concerns as yet unvoiced.

So as I see it, if you want to upgrade your agency’s creative output, bring the entire repertoire of New Age creative machinery to a screeching halt. Instead of doing more, do less. In fact, do one thing only: stop wasting your Creative team’s time.

Give them peace and quiet. Then, if you simply must do something to help, focus your energy on providing all background material and assets for each project up front, on time and with no lingering contradictions or outlandishly impractical requests.

That takes patience and forethought. It also requires you to educate your clients—a task involving enough that, done right, should leave you no extra time to fuss over details, or schedule another Webinar about UX design best practices.

Look at it this way. If you feel your Creative team needs so much assistance just to stamp out the routine work that’s your agency’s bread and butter, you don’t need to “elevate the creative.” You need to learn how to hire real talent.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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