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How to be creative in less creative places

This was a grad school project which required me to discuss my career and what makes me tick. WARNING: there is irony and humor in the following passage. Uptight HR people and managers should think twice about reading further. This piece is also posted at my Academia.edu page.

John Hegarty’s “Hegarty on Creativity: There are No Rules” sparked memories of things I’ve seen and experienced in my career. Not as a uber-super-successful creative manager in a top agency. Rather as the guy who generally had a better idea in whatever organization I was with.

In many places, “creativity” is consistently having a better idea or take. “Clever” is the ability to come up with a one-off, usually on the fly. It helps to be creative, because clever only goes so far.

What is common to creative or clever?  The impact of failure.

Remember that good will have to do, at times

These are sage words. There is nothing like tweaking something good into something great. It requires taking one step back, and asking yourself a no-BS question—could it be better? Sometimes this question comes after working three separate iterations in an effort to grow the right one. Sometimes it comes after working the only really good idea you’ve had.

But sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to do “great.” Sometimes good will have to do. Sometimes you get handed an opportunity to put something in a high-profile publication, but your boss still hasn’t approved the new strategy brief you did last Tuesday. Or you’re limited by “tradition” from taking full advantage of an opportunity. Or you’re a one or two-person operation physically limited by sleep, hunger and the need to use the toilet. “Great” can be lost due to the lasting effects of either of the three.

Lastly, being “great” is the rarefied air of manipulators. Some managers are actually creative. Others have an eye for what is creative. The other 85 percent don’t have a creative bone in their body are responsible for approving what you create.

Then there’s the five percent that simply use their position to continually challenge you to do better–without knowing what better is. They don’t take long to reveal themselves. Your ability to create “great” is directly related to the stress they are feeling about the campaign, their place in the company or whether it’s Friday or Monday.

Remember this: if you don’t understand or can defend why something is “great”; you’ll be stuck making unnecessary revisions or new iterations.

…even if you can, be prepared to do it anyway.  And find a new gig while you are at it. 

Remember to respect, not revere

Tell that to marketers who work in family businesses or charities. A good ad, jingle or schtick lives like royalty.

The “royal” gets trotted out on regular occasions, and employees speak about it in reverent tones (“THIS ad always makes the quarter”).  It is as if everything good that happens in company life can be attributed to the success of “the royal”

But, in actuality the ad is a pile of steaming crap.

These situations are everywhere, especially where the job of a communicator or marketer is to ensure the longevity of the “royal”.

Naturally, I’m poking a little fun. Sometimes “the royal” exists because the company hasn’t had the opportunity to work on something new and better. Companies often use the same tired idea because it takes time and effort to generate the business needed to pay for the ads. When the moment comes to buy and place it, there is literally too much riding on the campaign to trust to an untested new concept.

How can a creative person responsibly approach this situation?

If you’re really, really good, maybe you can turn a hick ad into an effective campaign. Think Menards, Empire Carpet, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, Flex-Seal and others.

If you’re not that good (or lucky), then as soon as you can–and as subtly as possible, try to add “test” into the equation. Don’t approach the situation as if you know it all, because the campaign’s numbers say you don’t. Testing allows for new ideas and input from new people. It can give communicators some creative freedom back. It has been known to give managers cover to try new things. Which makes it easier for the big boss to take credit.

Remember to persuade

At the very time we are able to use media to talk directly to people in new and more personalized ways, we are losing sight of something.

Asking for the sale.

Asking for the sale in the rarefied air of Madison Avenue advertising is different. It is implied that you need to own the item or service. Some of the finest minds and technology literally make you want that piece of candy or loaf of bread. It’s like the smooth lothario or temptress from the movies. You said “yes” before they said “Hello.”

That doesn’t work in other places and for other things. Best practices for big agencies with big budgets don’t always transfer well to other categories or when scaled down. Making people want to buy a lawn tractor from the local dealer means positioning the equipment against the competition, telling stories about outstanding customer service, framing the sales promotion, setting the expiration date and asking people for the sale, call or click.

It works this way for a lot of businesses. Not asking is wasting money. Don’t be a money-waster.

In closing

Before I go, I should say that the book is excellent. It made me dream big thoughts about how to revolutionize how humans relate to (insert something here, because I’m on a roll). It also helped remind me how I had to learn to control an imagination gone wild.

The harder lesson was how to not waste good ideas on bad people–which is another thing.

Sometimes, not very often, maybe just once, you have to give them the dreck they want.

Because the postman brings you bills every month.

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