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.

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Control Freaks

Years ago, as a student at the VCU Adcenter, I remember Jelly Helm admitting to our class that he was a little bit of a control freak. He said that if you asked the rest of the faculty, you’d find most of them were control freaks, too.

But the thing that’s really stuck with me, is that Jelly believed that having control-freak tendencies was probably a big contribution to his success.
“Control freak” has negative connotations. Who wants to work for a tyrant and an ego-maniac, right? The thing is, I don’t think Jelly is a tyrant or an ego-maniac. He just really cares about his work. He doesn’t stop at “good enough.”
Embrace your inner-control freak. Nourish it. You can be a control freak and still be nice and humble and respectful and open to other opinions.
But if you’re an art director, have an opinion about the copy your partner’s writing. If you’re a writer, weigh in on your partner’s layout and typeface. It’s you’re ad, too. Because when you show your book around and have to explain, “Yeah, my partner wanted it this way, but I didn’t really agree,” what you’re really saying is, “I put this in my book, but I don’t like it, so there’s really no reason you should either.”

5 Rules from Wieden + Kennedy

Jelly Helm’s advice, as it appeared in Men’s Health a few years ago:

Act Stupid. “Our philosophy is to come in ignorant every day. The idea of retaining ignorance is sort of counterintuitive, but it subverts a lot of [problems] that come from absolute mastery. If you think you know the answer better than somebody else does, you become closed to being fresh.” states Jelly Helm, creative director.

Shut up. “The first thing we do when we meet with clients is listen. We try to figure out what their problems are. Then we come back with questions, not solutions. We write these out and put them on the wall. And then we circle the ones that we think are interesting. More often than not, the questions hold the answer.”
Always say yes. “What I’ve learned from improvisation is to let go of outcome and just say yes to whatever the situation is. If you say an idea is bad, you’re creating conflict–you’re breaking an improv rule. You want an energy flow that moves you forward, as opposed to a creative stasis.”
Chase Talent. “Find people who make you better. It’s best to be the least talented person in the room. It’s reciprocal. It challenges you to keep up.”

Be Fearless. “Do anything, say anything. In the worlds of our president, Dan Wieden, ‘You’re not useful to me until you’ve made three momentous mistakes.’ He knows that if you try not to make mistakes, you miss out on the value of learning from them.”