Jack White on Creativity

I just finished watching Under Great White Northern Lights, a documentary about The White Stripes. If you’re a fan, I recommend it. If not, there’s still a great bit from an interview with the band where Jack is talking about intentionally putting limitations on himself and forcing himself to work within certain boundaries.

Here’s the quote from White:

10 years later, I think my god, I’m tired of working in this same box, but I force myself to do it because I know something good can come out of it if I really work inside of it.

Inspiration and work ethic, they ride right next to each other. When I was an upholsterer, sometimes you’re not inspired to re-upholster a chair…sometimes it’s just work and you just do it because you’re supposed to, and by the end, maybe you look at it and say, ‘Eh, that looks good, that’s pretty good.’ And that’s it. Then you move on.

I mean, not every day you’re going to wake up and the clouds are going to part and the rays from heaven are going to come down and you’re going to write a song from it. I mean, sometimes you just get in there and force yourself to work and maybe something good will come out of it. But that was one of the things, it was like whether we like it not, we’re going to write some songs and record. You know, force yourself into it. Book only four or five days in the studio and force yourself to record an album in that time. Deadlines and things make you creative. Opportunity and telling yourself “Oh, you have all the time in the world, you have all the money in the world, you have all the colors in the palette you want, anything you want,” I mean, that just kills creativity.

Why Creativity Isn’t Enough

Here are four characteristics of the kind of advertising we all aspire to create:

But most of us focus the majority of our efforts on only one area:

We’re in the creative department. We’re called creatives. One of the leading industry magazines is called Creativity.

The problem is, almost all of the student portfolios I see are creative. But that doesn’t get them a job. In most cases it doesn’t even get them an interview.
A lot of the advertising I see on TV and billboards and online is creative. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to win Lions at Cannes. It doesn’t even mean the writer and art director who came up with the idea will want to showcase it in their portfolios.
The way creative begins to stand out is to make it brilliant.

There are a lot of ways creative can become brilliant. A great brief with a great insight. Mind-blowing art direction. A real human truth. Basically, I think it’s creative work that the team actually cares about. It’s creative that tries harder.

Brilliant creative elevates your book out of the crowd a little bit. It puts you in the top quarter of portfolio school graduates. But top quarter isn’t really enough, right?
The next leap is to make it different.
It can’t just be different for different’s sake. You’ve got to back it up with the brilliance. So what’s the difference between brilliant creative and being different? It’s got to have that “I’ve never seen that before” feel. Look at the Skittles work. Completely different than anything in the candy category. Look at the Space Chair work from Toshiba. Or the We Choose the Moon site from Martin. Or Whopper Freakout. Not just brilliant creative, but very different from anything that came before.
I have seen only a few student books that have been able to do something truly different. And those were students that agencies were quick to hire.
But the big leap is to make your work innovative.
This is real Titanium Lion territory. And to be honest, it’s hard for me to imagine pulling something like this off in portfolio school. It’s hard enough once you’re in a job. But knowing what to reach for is a great place to start training your brain.
The adage is “Good enough isn’t good enough.”
But whether you’re trying to get a job, a raise, a Lion or a reputation, I think the new thought is “Creative isn’t good enough.”
(Credit for the four-quadrant idea goes to Gideon Amichay, the ECD of Y&R Tel Aviv.)

Know Your Agency’s Pitch

This is going to sound business-y, but stay with me. It relates to your job as a creative.

I’m quoting from Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick, who are quoting from Stephen Covey’s book The 8th Habit. Covey describes a poll of 23,000 employees with the following results:

  • Only 37 percent said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why.
  • Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team’s and their organization’s goals.
  • Only one in five said they had a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organization’s goals.
  • Only 15 percent felt that their organization fully enables them to execute key goals.
  • Only 20 percent fully trusted the organization they work for.

The Brothers Heath write, “As sobering as those statistics are, they’re very abstract. But Covey superimposes a very human metaphor over the statistics and says, ‘If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.'”

Now here’s how this applies to you:

You’ve got to know what your agency’s goals are, what they’re doing to achieve them, and who they’re using. Because if they’re not as dedicated to creative work as you are, it will be a problem for you in the long run.

It’s the reason portfolio students send their books to places like Goodby and Crispin and Boone/Oakley and not to…well, I won’t name names. But you know who your last ditch agencies would be.

A few lessons from Spike Jonze

The New York Times has a great article on Spike Jonze. It’s worth reading, because as a creative in advertising, you probably have (or should try to have) a lot in common with him. Here are some excerpts:

Spike is described as chatty but not particularly forthcoming, asking nearly as many questions as he answered.

When he was just starting out, He was always experimenting…climbing on top of something high or hanging out the door of a van or lighting a fire or wrapping somebody in tinfoil and shooting him with flashes.

He didn’t cave into success: Movie offers began pouring in, mostly for studio comedies like a sequel to “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” but Jonze rejected them one after another.

And Spike knows what it’s like to have a project compromised: TriStar had been pressuring him to make the [Harold and the Purple Crayon] script jokier, he said, and he’d given in to the point where he barely recognized his own work. “I realized only then that it happens millimeter by millimeter,” he told me. “If you compromise what you’re trying to do just a little bit, you’ll end up compromising a little more the next day or the next week, and when you lift your head you’re suddenly really far away from where you’re trying to go.

And ultimately killed: Two months before principal photography was scheduled to start [on Harold and the Purple Crayon], TriStar pulled out…There’d been a regime change at the studio and Jonze’s vision was a bit too ‘bold’ for the new executives.

Let the wild rumpus start.

Talk About the Work

If you want to get better at recognizing (and ultimately creating) great work, you need to talk about it. With your partners, with your CDs, with your planners and account team. You probably already do this, but let me tell you why it’s a good thing to do. By talking about the work…

  • You internalize why it’s great (or why it sucks). Those values become a part of who you are as a creative.
  • You open your taste to criticism. And education. (Someone at my office thought this was a great “commercial.” Obviously, we need to talk about great work with her more often.)
  • You become more capable of articulating why something works or why it doesn’t. This is an invaluable skill if you want to be a creative director or judge an awards show. (“It just isn’t working for me,” is not helpful direction.)

Seeing the work Fred & Farid did for Wrangler is good.

Understanding why it won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year is better.

Having an opinion on whether or not it deserved such an honor – and being able to articulate it (see Lubars’ comments) – is best.

And you get bonus points for knowing the opinions of your partner, creative director, agency president, and planner. Because that will let you know what kind of agency you work for. Not because they agree or disagree. But because you’ll know that they’re thinking about what’s great, and what it takes to get there.

Idea Rain Birds

You need to come up with tons and tons of ideas. But not at the expense of becoming an idea rain bird.

An idea rain bird is someone who spouts off short bursts of inspiration all over the place without ever stopping to focus on any of them. An idea rain bird churns out sloppy ideas without caring where they land. Idea rain birds have tons of ideas. But few of them have any impact.

Yes, you need to have lots and lots of ideas. Yes, you need to explore tons of directions. But when you say, “What if we did this…” Take the time to really think about your idea before moving on to the next one.

How to Read an Awards Annual

You’ve probably already gone through the CA Advertising Annual and preordered your copy of the One Show. (If not, why haven’t you?)

It’s easy enough to go through these books page by page, thinking “Cool…Cool…How’d that get in?…Cool…I had that idea…”

But if you’re serious about understanding what makes an award-winning ad, you can’t just flip through the annuals. You have to study them. Yes, study.

One of the best techniques I know came from my old copywriting professor, Coz Cotzias. Here’s what you do…

  1. Sit down with an annual and a pack of Post-It notes.
  2. Go through the book flagging every ad you totally dig as a creative.
  3. Put the book down. Go see a movie. Read a book. Whatever. Just step away.
  4. Come back to the book, but this time, viewing only the executions you tagged as a creative, look at them as a consumer. Tag the ones you dig as someone who might actually buy whatever it is that’s being advertised.

These are the ads you want to aspire to. Why? Because they’re not just clever. They’re smart. They’re effective. They’re the ones that are rooted in a strategy. The ones that are really solving the client’s problem creatively.

For extra credit, go through all of these ads and see if you can figure out what the strategy was and who specifically they were trying to talk to. This isn’t to turn you into planners. It’s to make you better creatives.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Gary Goldsmith…

We all pay less attention to the process than we should. If doctors and scientists operated in the same manner that we do, it’d be a scary world. What they do is creative, too, in its own way. They’ve devoted a lot of thought to the way in which they arrive at a diagnosis, and the way in which they treat it. But with us, it’s almost like we have this thing in our head, we don’t need to do that, we should just sit down and come up with ideas.

Work > Talking About Work

“Do you think a headline would help?”
“Do you think a different layout would make more sense?”
“Do you think it needs a line?”

I hear these questions a lot from students when I look through their portfolios. And my answer is always the same:

“I don’t know. Go find out.”

It’s impossible to tell if a headline would clarify the ad until you’ve written tons and tons of headlines. There’s no way to know if there’s a better layout until you’ve done several so there’s some comparison.

You can’t talk theoretically about advertising. It’s like saying, “If I had a killer headline and an awesome visual, would that make a good ad?”
If you have an ad you’re not sure about, play with it. Write some headlines. Or taglines. Or body copy. You may find out it’s exactly what you need. Or you may find out why it’s perfect without them.

If you’ve laid it out one way and you’re not 100% convinced, lay it out 10 different ways.
You’ve got to work. You cannot theorize.

Julia Cameron said it best:
“Art is not about thinking something up. It’s about putting something down.”