July 15, 2009

"What Is Good Creative And How Do I Get It?"

(I was rummaging through my laptop the other day and I found a talk I gave to a group of ad agency owners a few years ago on the subject of creativity. I have done a tiny bit of editing to get it up to date. Other than that, it remains as it was.)

The subject matter of my talk this morning is "What is good creative and how do I get it?"

My intent is to take us through a course of logic in the hope that at the end we will reach the discomforting conclusion that perhaps the lies we've been telling ourselves about creativity deserve more thought than we've given them.

Let's first rid ourselves of the notion that the definition of good creative is simply "that which is successful in the marketplace." That definition is merely a tautology and doesn't tell us a thing about the nature of "good creative."

Good creative has certain characteristics.
  • It is the stuff that is beautiful, or outrageous, or funny, or interesting.
  • It is the stuff we wish we had done.
  • It is advertising we like to watch.
  • It is advertising we would volunteer to watch.
We have a roomful of highly successful ad agency owners here today and I think it is mildly disingenuous of us to pretend that we don't know what good creative is.

I believe we all know what it is, but we make a game of finding esoteric definitions for it in order to justify what most of us produce most of the time -- which is not good creative.

So we re-define what creativity means in order to deceive ourselves into thinking that what we're doing is good. We tell ourselves that creativity is, for example, "the clear and compelling articulation of a strategy". Which, in my opinion, is not creativity.

Creativity is completely unrelated to strategy. Let me say that again -- creativity is completely unrelated to strategy.

Creativity is what happens after the strategy is done. Creativity is the process that transforms a strategy into a terrific ad.

Or, more usually, the absence of creativity is what transforms a strategy into a smelly turd.

That's not to say that strategy is not an important component of advertising. It is. It's just that advertising has two components. The first is strategy. The second is creativity.

Now before all you account guys start yapping at me, I stipulate that there is a "small c" creative component to the development of strategy and that the difference between an average strategy and an excellent one is often the degree to which it is creatively conceived. [For my thoughts on ad strategy, look here -- TAC]

However, I don't think that is what we're talking about here. When we talk about "creativity" in the context of advertising, what we're usually talking about is what the copywriter and art director do after the planners are finished mucking-up the brief.

In my opinion, those who think creativity is merely "the clear and compelling articulation of a strategy" are doomed to a career of apologizing -- apologizing for mediocre ads, and apologizing for mediocre results.

Now the complicated part of all this -- and the part that is guaranteed to drive you crazy -- is that good creative doesn't always produce good business results. Which is another way of saying that good creative isn't always effective advertising.

Why? Nobody knows. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Despite our many pretensions to the contrary, there's an awful lot we don't know about advertising. We get up in front of our clients and feed them a lot of hogwash about branding or engagement or whatever happens to be your buzzword of choice, and that's fine. They expect us to be full of shit. But I would strongly suggest that you don't start believing your own baloney or you'll find yourself in hot water pretty darn quick.

If you're going to be the type of agency that does good creative work, you're just going to have to get used to the idea that you usually can't prove that it's any better than doing crap. And you're going to have to get used to the idea that good creative sometimes fails.

On the other hand, if you're going to be the kind of agency that does not do good creative work, you're going to have to get used to always being on the defensive with your clients. And you're going to have to get used to the idea that even when bad creative succeeds, it is still stinky and you're still going to be apologizing for it.

Those are your unpleasant options.

Whichever course you choose, you can be sure you'll always be on the hot seat. When you say it's an art, they'll say it's a business. When you say it's a business, they'll say it's an art.

The way I see it, if you're going to be miserable anyway, you might as well do good creative work.

It has been my experience that there are some things in life that are not achievable directly. They are only achievable indirectly. Like being happy. You can't achieve happiness by trying to be happy. You can only do it indirectly. By going fishing, or playing your guitar really loud or something. That will make you happy. But try hard to be happy and you're pretty certain to be miserable.

This, I believe, is also true of creativity. You are far more likely to be creative by not trying too hard to be creative, but by trying to communicate with people in an interesting way.

You've seen it at your agency. Those who are trying desperately to be creative often arrive at puerile, ludicrous solutions. Those who are just trying to communicate in an interesting way, often come up with the most creative solutions.

The second part of the question is "How do I get creativity." The answer to that one is simple. You buy it.

Creativity is a rare and precious commodity. The reason there are so many crappy ads in the world is the same reason there are so many crappy books, and crappy songs, and crappy movies, and crappy tv shows. It's not because there's a conspiracy to create crappy stuff. It's just that creating good stuff is very difficult and there are very few people who can do it.

We have been told by new age charlatans that "we're all creative people" and that all we have to do is free ourselves from the artificial restraints of our society and our culture and all our creativity will flow forth.


Creativity is the most rare and precious of commodities. It is the result of hard work, discipline, and above all, talent.

You can't teach talent. You can barely manage it. You have to go out and find it and buy it.

So, in 10 words or less:
  • What is good creative? You know what it is.
  • How do I get it? You buy it.
But those are the simple questions. The hard questions are: Do you really want creativity, and what are you willing to sacrifice to get it?

First of all, really good creative people are dangerous. Some clients don't like them. As a matter of fact, many clients don't like them. I have seen companies that have done terrible advertising for years suddenly produce a really good campaign. And get fired. Creativity is not for the timid.

Talented creative people are hard to find. Those who call themselves "creatives" in our business are, to a large extent, mediocrities who delude themselves into thinking that if they have a silly haircut and an annoying personality they must be talented.

The only thing that truly talented creative people have in common with the mass of not-very-talented creative people is that they, too, are pains in the ass.

Great creative people are smarter than us. They will challenge everything we say, they will scoff at the pathetic strategies we come up with, and they will make trouble and annoy the shit out of us.

They will also -- under the right circumstances -- make us rich and famous.

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