January 13, 2014
Stealing For Success
Back in my agency days I was a pretty good copywriter. Not great and not terrible, but pretty good.
I like to think that if I had focused more on creative work and less on agency management I could have been better. Of course, this is the kind of bullshit we all tell ourselves to excuse our mediocrity.
In my career I had a few hit campaigns (way too few). While these hits lasted a brief time, they represented the most enjoyable days I spent in advertising. It really is fun to have people talking about something you've created.
One of my hit campaigns was the result of precision stealing. I didn't steal the idea, but I borrowed a structure. By paying attention to what really good creative people do, you can learn a lot and apply it to your work.
My partner had a terrific idea for a campaign we were working on. She got the idea from a character in a movie. The character never actually appeared in the movie but was referenced in it.
But we were stuck in the "idea" stage. We couldn't figure out how to make the idea into a spot. (By the way, one of the biggest problems creative people have is understanding the difference between an idea and a spot. I've written about this before.)
Anyway, we were struggling. One morning I was riding down the elevator of our building when I asked myself a question: How would Hal Riney have written this spot? One minute later I had the spot done.
Riney frequently used a technique in which he would have a narrator weave in and out through the dialogue moving the story along. Of course, he didn't invent this structure, but he used it very effectively.
The spot I did looked nothing like anything Riney would ever write, but by borrowing the structure I took a good idea and made it into a good spot.
In other words, I took an idea someone borrowed from a movie, applied a technique someone else borrowed from film school, and out popped something pretty good.
Sometimes, creativity isn't about inventing. Sometimes it's about re-arranging.