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.