The best creative director I ever worked for was the late Mike Hughes of the Martin Agency. One day we were talkin’ about the business and Mike said, “Just because you’re a great creative person doesn’t mean you’ll make a great creative director.”
He was very clear about it, even to the point of saying, “Y’know, I don’t think I was such a great creative, but I’m doin’ pretty well as a creative director, right?” (To which, of course, I agreed.) He said the two require very different skill sets.
And yet here in the ad industry, as in many other fields, promotion to the rank of creative director happens almost exclusively as a result of being a great creative. It happened to me that way and now, looking back, I realize my creative career didn’t prepare me for creative management.
At the time, my game plan was simply not be like many of the creative directors I’d worked for. I wasn’t going to be an asshole. I wasn’t going to browbeat or embarrass the staff. I wasn’t going to compete with them. I thought if I could just be “one of the guys” I’d be all right. But like parenting experts say, your kids don’t want you to be their buddy, they want a parent. I could’ve been better.
I’ve done an awful lot of study since those days, a lot of reading, a lot of studying, and a lot of work with different agencies that hire me to give advice on their creative process. On October 28, I’ll be giving an online seminar on what I’ve learned. It’s not just for creative directors in agencies. It’s for any company that has to produce creative of any kind. (You can register here.)
I’ve done so much study in this area, there simply isn’t time in a hour to present everything I’d like to cover. So here’s a little part I had to cut. I think it’s good advice.
Learn to move on 80%.
Moving on 80% is an idea I think came from the military arts. One of the lessons of generalship is learning you’ll never have perfect intel. You’ll likely never know with 100% certainty the right course of action to take. And if you do wait for 100% certainty, you’ll lose anyway because you’ve waited too long.
This is learning to live with ambiguity.
In life, most of us learn how to reduce ambiguity. We learn that it pays to proceed slowly, to weigh all the risks and benefits of proceeding in a certain direction. But in this industry, proceeding slowly is rarely an option. 100% certainty isn’t on the table.
What some creative managers try to do then, to improve their shot at 100%, is split their troops and try to cover as much exploratory ground as possible. Exploration is in fact a key part of the creative process, … in an ideal setting. Meaning, when there’s time. But we almost never have enough time for robust creative exploration.
Yet, many CDs take this approach even as time runs out, splitting up their creative resources like they’re a posse in an old Western. “Okay, you guys head to the border, you guys make for the gully, you stay by the bank, and then report back to me. At the saloon.”
Trying to explore all the options under time pressure reminds me of a fantastic passage from Stephen Leacock, a writer from the early 1900s. “He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse, and rode madly off in all directions.”
Better, I think, is to do what exploration the deadline allows for and then use your judgement to decide which direction to go. Move on 80%. Yes, it might turn out to be the wrong direction, but you’ll learn from this and you’ll have a better idea where to go. Remember, creativity is iterative.
Endlessly debating options and over-thinking a creative decision chews up development time, and will never get you to 100% certainty anyway. In life, there’s little certainty; in creativity, none.
I met Wendy when she was a client on BellSouth Mobility; she was one of the smartest and kindest clients I ever met. Ever. Was proud to work with her again at GSD&M. She went on to be President of Sparkling Brands & Strategic Marketing at Coca-Cola. Now she’s CEO of DDB Worldwide and had a blurb in one of my fave mags, Fast Company.
I swear, keeping an eye on the trajectory of Wendy’s career makes my neck hurt.
Back when I was a young knucklehead in advertising, we all knew the way to advance was to outwork everybody and dig up as much work as you could by walkin’ around and bugging the project managers for open job orders. (“Gimme a problem to solve. I’ll do a radio spot, a brochure, anything.”)
But today the opportunity for digging up cool projects is much bigger. Here’s why. When you think about it, most job orders are basically requests for solutions to problems that’ve already been identified. (“Please fill this 30-second TV buy with a concept. Oh, and make it part of the new fall campaign.”)
For my money, problem finding is a better way for you to advance your career. Not only is it more fun, problem finding is where most of the really cool stuff is happening; it’s the outer edge of growth; the green ring around the tree trunk of ideas. (Okay, I need a better metaphor but shut up, I’m on a roll.)
Here’s the reason why problem finding is an increasingly valuable skill. Most brands already have plenty of people solving their marketing problems; the ads, the TV spots; everybody’s already busy workin’ on that stuff. What you wanna look for are the problems that clients don’t know they have, yet. Problems which might be around the corner.
I define problem finding as a playful screwing-around and “what if-ing” that often results in giant leaps forward; leaps nobody was expecting because the problem didn’t exist until you pointed it out. Think of it as Creative Research & Development. And we do it by looking at the client, at their customers, their stores, their website. We look for bottlenecks, redundancies, unmet customer needs. And then we solve this new problem, elegantly.
All of which leads me to a particular project by two of my recent SCAD ad graduates: Lindsey Dwyer and Jocelyn Morera. As we often do in class, Lindsey and Jocelyn chose their own client, Redbox, and then looked not for an advertising problem to solve but to the future of Redbox; for problems the client’s likely gonna have down the road. The problem they settled on was simple, if daunting: “Save Redbox.”
Redbox launched in 2002 with kiosks in a few McDonald’s stores. They had a great run; their ubiquitous grocery store kiosks surpassed the number of Blockbuster locations in 2007 and for the year 2010 they had one billion rentals. For a long time now, Redboxes have been a convenient way to pick up a movie while making a grocery run. And returning the DVD was easy because you were likely going back for more food within the week anyway.
Well, we all know where this is going: DVDs and DVD players are fading. In fact, the last DVD player I saw was endlessly playing Toy Story for fidgety kids in my dentist’s waiting room. If you agree that the DVD format is indeed headed for a long dirt nap, it’s clear Redbox is gonna need more than just some cool ads. Jocelyn and Lindsey’s identification of the real problem (“Save Redbox”) seems prescient.
Their solution was The Little Redbox.
A little red USB people could plug into the existing kiosks on their way outta the store, download one of the latest movies, and go. It continues to serve the same impulse (“Yeah, let’s get a movie for tonight”), it still serves owners of DVD players still in the market, all while solving the other problem that comes with DVDs. (“Now I gotta return the damn thing.”)
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Okay, all you other SCAD ad students. Your Uncle Luke loves you, too. I’m using tons of your projects out there in speeches I give all over the country. You guys rock, too. I just thought this particular project illustrates an important point: problem-finding can go to some interesting places problem-solving can’t.