“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Viktor Frankl.
I have had an interesting two weeks. I have judged two advertising award shows, one in New Zealand and the other in Australia. Some of the work wasn’t very good but some of it was truly amazing. Doing great work like this takes an enormous amount of time, effort and belief. You do more than is required. You do extra work because you believe something can be great.
I have been thinking a lot about belief lately. It’s something I write a lot about because I believe it’s a vital ingredient a creative needs to succeed. You only have to look at a great piece of work to see how belief in an idea pushes a creative to give more.
Being a creative is a very strange job. On a daily basis, you are expected to push beyond the average, the expected, and the ideas that would make everybody happy. I call them ideas that let you go home at five. Your job description is to exceed what is acceptable and adequate. And, to often do it without a net or any guarantee of success or reward. Think about that for a second. Think about doing that every day. Many think being a creative is easy. Well, I suggest you try it. How would you manage that fear? How would you handle not knowing if what you are thinking is brilliant or shit or somewhere in between? How would you handle having a great idea, watch it be destroyed and then be asked to have a new one by morning.
After being a creative for 20 years and watching other creatives for just as long I can tell you how they handle it.
They believe in something.
You might believe in ideas, high standards, anger, a cruel world, an elegant answer, perfection, yourself, or maybe what your agency stands for. But you better have something.
I mention this because I was inspired by the effort, belief and care I saw in the work in the last two weeks. And, I mention it because of how that special work seems to be totally at odds with some of the strange ideas I have been reading about lately. I have read numerous stories about the commoditisation of creativity being the future of our business. People are speaking about ideas like they are loaves of bread. Hundreds of idea loaves popping off the conveyor belt to be sold every morning. This is bullshit.
More worryingly, I have been hearing about certain powerful decision makers wanting to do away with specific agencies and creating these massive anonymous, amorphous creative gulags where ideas will bubble up for brands day and night.
So why does that matter? It matters because ideas are not loaves of bread. Ideas are not all the same shape and they don’t all have the same value. Trying to turn ideas into a standardised commodity might actually be the dumbest idea of all time.
This is because ideas very rarely happen or get made because of the right amount of time or the fact that you have lots of them. They happen because enough people believed in them.
We don’t revere Steve Jobs because of how many average or bad ideas he had. We don’t revere him because of his efficient use of time. We revere him because of his belief in impossible things.
Ideas need massive amounts of belief to succeed. And so do creatives. Because they don’t often have much of it themselves. Some might find that ridiculous or self-indulgent. Fair enough. But the truth is, if you want somebody to work many weekends or late into the night they need to believe that the place they are at or the work they are doing is meaningful. If they don’t, I promise you the work you will get will be average and the creative will leave as soon as they can.
For a creative, believing they are in the right place makes a massive difference to the quality of their output. Think about it, if you are supposed to care about quality but you work in a place that only cares about quantity, it isn’t going to end well. If you are supposed to generate ideas every day but they are not really valued, what kind of ideas do you think you will be having in six months? You will learn the system and do enough to keep your job.
The planet is already littered with these kinds of agencies. They are giant depots. Places where creatives get very high salaries just to work there. The creatives are terminally depressed because nobody wants them to have great ideas. So, the work is violently average. Sadly, the creatives probably still work weekends and late into the night making mediocre things.
I have been there and it sucks.
Why on God’s Earth would we create a massive version of that?
A giant faceless provider of creative solutions will never create great work. Clients will get a lot of average shit in a world already full of a lot of awful shit. So, it might make sense financially right now. But it will never make sense creatively. And it won’t make sense financially when you get fired in a year or two because nobody noticed the work.
If there was ever a time to care about ideas it would be now. Uniformity and mediocrity are not the answers to being noticed in a crowded world.
So, to the grownups, beware. The moment you de-value ideas so you can generate lots of them cheaply you are walking down a very dangerous slippery path. Having ideas isn’t the hard part, caring about them is.
Let me say that again. Having ideas isn’t the hard part, caring about them is.
And caring begins to die the moment you take belief and meaning out of the creative equation. When you say it’s just a job, it becomes one. Nobody will be working late. You lose the extra stuff. The moment you say to a creative what you do and where you work is no longer of any importance, that is the moment their mind leaves the building. The day a creative doesn’t think what they are doing matters is the day you end up with a workforce that will do only what is required. Not what is necessary.
In short, our industry is in danger of creating a process that will make a product that is exactly the opposite of what is needed. Now more than ever.
Damon Stapleton is the chief creative officer of DDB (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- This article first appeared in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing.