We have often been told to choose our battles wisely. Many times, this means walking away from a battle that matters. Choose this battle and choose it wisely because you and your industry have been taking the blows for too long.
If you’re still reading, strap in for a bit of an angry ride.
How often do you see a joke on something like @designershumour on Instagram and feel like it totally describes an aspect of your day at work? The ones about being asked to design something/photograph someone/take an art commission in exchange for exposure. Or the ones about the seventy-eight rounds of changes that a client requests before they finally accept the work. And by ‘the work’ we mean a version of the original so watered down that it looks like those painting-by-numbers sheets you buy at the Van Gogh museum gift shop.
I recently saw one that struck a chord. The €500 client is the one that acts like they now own your soul, feeling free to call after office hours and to make unreasonable demands and that will pay your fees begrudgingly, often several months after they’re overdue. The €50,000 client (I know, this was on an international channel) is the one that just sends the payment and accepts the work.
This got me thinking. It’s not about the size of the account. It is about the maturity of the client. The small client hasn’t understood the value of creative while those entrusted with massive accounts usually do.
Let’s start by a rudimentary definition of what we could call ‘successful creative’. This isn’t meant to go into a dictionary. It’s meant for us to have a phrase that we can work with for understanding the context.
There is everything we are familiar with. Bread and butter. They go together and we can all see how. Then there is the totally uncomfortable and unfamiliar. This is the stuff we don’t like and don’t want to think about. The creative will take a couple of different ideas and mash them together so they retain enough familiarity for us to see a completely new link between the ideas. If the link is really great, it pushes us just towards the border of the uncomfortable. And the closer it gets, the better the creative.
But, I hear you scream, what’s familiar to me is not familiar to everyone. And what’s uncomfortable to me is not uncomfortable to everyone.
This is where the good creatives excel. They understand their audiences. They know who they’re speaking to and who they are leaving out. They refuse to dilute their messaging to the point where it becomes familiar to absolutely everyone. Because that, by definition, is not creative.
So, backed by experience, fortified by intuition, equipped with years of education, driven by the desire to create beautiful and beautifully functional communication, the creative gets to work. This means hours or days of research, sketching, writing, scribbling, finding inspiration in the least likely of places, digging into ideas that have been squirreled away for this very moment. It means losing track of lunchtime and bedtime because the right way needs more refinement. It means taking honest criticism from colleagues and peers and the humility to act upon it…
It also means coping with the gut-wrenching knowledge that if it takes a hundred ideas to get to the right place, ninety-nine of them will have to be cruelly culled. They’re your ideas and you get to kill them.
Finally, thanks to this ineffable blend of intuition and training, to the careful pirouette between fact and feeling, and to the tango that form and function so elegantly dance, the work is done and ready to be presented.
Presented to whom? This is where it gets messy.
The recipient of your creative work is the steward of the brand. They know what is brand-appropriate and what isn’t. They are also humans, with a lifetime of experiences behind them. And, more often than not, they will not take the time to approach creative objectively.
This is inevitable. Our lives are experienced subjectively. But when we’re at work we must take an amount of objectivity with us. We can’t react emotionally to management accounts even if we want to. We can’t react emotionally to health & safety regulations. We must retain the objectivity we need to think and act in the best interest of the organisation and of the brand.
The best outcome for a meeting of minds between those proposing creative and those approving of it is a piece of communication that stuns your audiences for all the right reasons – a persuasive piece of beautiful communication. It ought to look great and it ought to do the job of changing people’s minds.
This means that those approving of the work need to be comfortable with feeling a little uncomfortable. The best creative does this. Every time you see the work presented at the Cannes Lions or the stuff that does the rounds with comments like ‘this is a brilliant piece of marketing’ you should be thinking “that’s a brilliant collaboration between clever creative and brave client”.
Because it takes two to win at this game. It takes a creative who is willing to be brave and to have the smarts it takes to produce work that will work, not just look good. And it takes a client who knows to keep their personal preferences out of things and to look at the work based on its ability to work for the brand.
A bigger logo doesn’t make communication any more effective. If you hate the colour blue it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t feature on your creative. If you’re allergic to cats they could still help tell a good story.
This is not an easy ask. It takes discipline and restraint. It takes working through the cognitive dissonance that good creative often puts forth. It takes bravery and the will to fail once in a while. It takes away the safety net that playing safe provides.
It does lead to greatness though. It means that the brand will be known for great stories. No one remembers the brands that play safe. It also means you’ll encourage your creatives to produce even more stunning work rather than bludgeoning them into a permanent semi-coma.
If you’re not paid to do creative and you’re still reading this you’ve noticed this one is also for you. If you’re reading this after the warning not to, it means you’re curious about breaking some rules. So be brave, be that rebel who sticks their neck out in the name of a good story that’s well told. Your brand will thank you for it and you’ll have made a creative happy and fulfilled. And we’d have postponed this call to arms for another day.