Jumping to Execution

In the last year or so, I’ve seen a major increase in the polished case study videos that students do. Pretty professional case studies, for events and programs and guerilla stunts that never happened (though you wouldn’t know it from the slick comps and videos). I do plenty of these in my job. They’re a pain in the ass to do. So when I see students who can crank them out, part of me thinks “Yes! We should hire this person so I don’t have to make these damn things anymore.” But usually I think “Nice case study. Too bad the idea’s not that good.”

This past quarter, after a student presented his first round ideas with full-on comps in a seven-page deck, I asked him, “How long did it take you to build that deck?” Thinking I was complimenting his skills, he smiled and said, “Not very long. Like an hour and a half.” To which I said, “That’s an hour and a half you could have spent coming up with better ideas.”

I have given this advice over and over, and each year I feel like I’m shouting it into a stronger, louder wind of technology and “paperless” schools: DO NOT CONCEPT ON A COMPUTER.

If you don’t want to kill trees, awesome. Reuse the back sides of paper. One of my former instructors, a creative Jedi who really loves trees, Jelly Helm, suggests cutting your reused sheets of paper into quarters. However you do it, write your ideas down. Headlines too. Write them. With a pen or pencil or marker. On paper. Your brain works differently when you do this. You’re less likely to edit your ideas when you have to turn the pencil around and actually erase something. And that’s good–you shouldn’t be editing at the beginning. Just coming up with ideas, writing them down, and sticking them up on the wall. Lots of them. Like 100 or more. Then, and only then, pick your best and refine them. Make them better. Generate more.

When you jump to the computer, you’re skipping to execution. You’re cheating yourself out of the most important part of the project. You’re skimping on the idea. And you might end up with a nice looking video or well-executed comp, but if the idea’s not awesome, it doesn’t matter.

5 thoughts on “Jumping to Execution

  1. I couldn't agree more. In the past five years I've seen the quality of book production soar while the quality of the thinking remain the same. That is to say one great book full of solid ideas for every 10 or 20.

    Finished ideas are so seductive, it's easy to understand why students race to produce them. Finished ideas let us say, “Look! I made something!” and when we're new to making things, we sometimes misinterpret this as, “Look! I made something remarkable!”

    Spend your time on ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. When you hear the siren song of comping things up, stuff Jelly's pencil erasers in your ears and press on.


  2. I do think ideas should begin on paper. Lots of paper. But students also seem lazy when it comes time to present marker comps. It's as if the idea is half baked in comp form. So I guess what I'm saying is, I think marker comps are for yourself to edit and form into something presentable. But I don't think students should present marker comps. It holds them to a higher standard to know they have to present something somewhat polished. And I also think that sometimes it is in the process of the execution, when the idea starts to come to life, that they realize if this thing is gonna work or not.
    I think the same applies to agencies, I very rarely will present a marker comp to a creative director. What are your thoughts on presenting marker comps at school and in the agency world?


  3. I'm in a slightly different place than you, Brian. It really depends, as always, on knowing your audience. If it's a client or creative director (or instructor) who expects you to present more polished comps or cannot visualize a finished product based on a marker comp, then definitely tailor the comp to that. There are certainly creative directors who like to see more polished work. I find that particularly true with digital creative directors. It's not right or wrong, but digital creative directors tend to be more focused on the executional details early on.

    For myself, I don't want creatives spending time on comps when we're still trying to find the best concept. I feel confident in my ability (and the ability of those I work with) to visualize from a marker comp. In that initial presentation, I want concepts to be judged based on the idea, rather than the execution. Likewise, if I have a client who can judge an idea based on a rough comp, I prefer that. I don't like to lock down the execution until I can involve the people who are most expert at executing–the directors, photographers, animators, designers, etc.

    But to your point, a marker comp should never be an excuse for sloppy thinking or a half-baked idea.


  4. My expectation is for students to present lots and lots of marker comps, and for professionals to present a handful of semi-polished comps. My experience is that most students need to train themselves to think creatively and in volume. They need to figure out what it means to think strategically, and have the product at the core of the idea. They also need to learn to simplify, which marker comps force you to do.

    The people I work with who've been doing this a long time can come up with solid, simple, and interesting ideas much quicker, giving them more time to craft their work. Deadlines and truncated client schedules kind of force us to do this, too.


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