Ten years ago, when I first became the creative director at Brogan & Partners, I wanted to know the secret to being a good one. After all, I’d worked with some of the greats over my years at Leo Burnett, Campbell-Ewald and Brogan. The biggest secret I discovered was that despite having great mentors, like Bonnie Folster, I had to find my own voice. I had to learn to sift through piles of ideas and find the diamonds, and listen to the little voice inside of me guiding me on which campaigns to kill and which campaigns to fight for.
So whether you aspire to be a creative director one day, seek to be a more well-rounded agency exec, or are a marketing director on the client side who wants to understand the creative process better, here are the 15 secrets I have discovered so far…
- Go big or go home. Advertising is too expensive to be quiet and safe. If you want to break through, you need a big idea. It was true 100 years ago in this business and it’s still true today. The only difference is that integration over multiple channels is even more important, as there are so many more channels in the communication mix.
- There a million ways to carve an apple. The number of creative solutions to any given problem? Infinite. And if we had all the time and money in the world, we could explore every one. But we don’t. We have timelines and deadlines. So we have to accept that the work we create is the best we can do given those parameters. And it’s usually a darn good apple.
- Brainstorms are great but genius is a solitary business. I read a great article about the Rise of Groupthink. It seems that for the sake of efficiency and the desire for cooperative teamwork, committee brainstorms are on the rise. Now, as a creative, I love a good brainstorm. When they are done right and you get the strategy, goals and background information beforehand, and everyone comes with ideas on paper, they are wonderful. But Edison didn’t invent the light bulb in a meeting. The brightest light bulb moments aren’t pulled out of thin air, they are born from deep, deep solitary thinking. Letting your mind wander, capturing stream of consciousness ideas and unlocking the flow by association and inspiration. That is how big ideas are born.
- It’s better to play in a sandbox. If you think a blank sheet of paper inspires creativity, think again. It needs boundaries. Research. Insights. Strategy. Knowledge. Parameters give creative people a field on which to play. Without them, it’s like drifting in a vast sea with nothing tangible to grab on to.
- Know your audience. It’s not always you. As a middle-aged female who works on a lot of healthcare, I can often relate to the subject matter and target audience. But other times, I have to channel a teenage male, or a CEO, or a disabled veteran. The more you know about your target audience (what they think, want and feel) the more you can speak in a way that emotionally connects. They are not a demo. They are real people.
- Don’t go in the front door. The obvious solution is not always the best solution. Anyone who has worked with me knows I use a technique called mind mapping to generate ideas. I put the simplest thing I am trying to say in a circle and then draw legs from it—thinking of all the different ways to say or show that message. I make sure I am covering every angle, from the back door to the side door and from the window to the chimney. The more “ins” you have, the more ideas you can get “out” of it.
- Think with your heart, not just your head. You have to make an emotional connection with your audience. And you won’t if you just talk about you, you and you. I equate it to making friends at a cocktail party. You have to be empathetic. You have to be relatable. And only once you make that connection can you go on to create a relationship.
- “Me too” advertising leads to mediocrity. There is safety in sameness. When you blend in, don’t rock the boat and steer clear of risks, you may not get fired, but then you may not be promoted either. Every brand is unique. Every brand has something different to offer. Finding that competitive differentiator leads to more brand authenticity. And it can lead to greatness. Learn the 3 rules to creating an authentic brand.
- A campaign can’t get very far without “legs.” Great brand campaigns should be able to live for 3-5 years. And there are iconic ones that live for decades. I always look for campaigns that have a lot of legs. Campaigns that can go on and on, across mediums, and have the potential to evolve over time. So beware of one-offs. Stick with the big ideas.
- Walk away from the work. Hang it all on the wall and literally take 10 steps back. (And if you have time, sleep on it.) Which designs pull you in? Which copy calls out to you? Which makes you feel good? When they are all on the wall together, the best ideas rise to the top. You have just a few seconds to get someone’s attention, so this is a good test of stickiness. Sometimes as a mini focus group, in determining the agency recommendation, I call everyone from the agency in to review concepts and give them a sticky note to put on their first and second choice. Of course, you can’t vote for your own idea, and you can’t vote if you bear no resemblance to the target audience.
- Put ideas in recycling, not the trash. Never throw away a good idea. Or bad idea. Sometimes they can be resurrected later or inspire others. One of my earliest ideas as an intern at Brogan sat in my portfolio in storyboard form. When I came back to Brogan in the 90s, an assignment came up, and I was finally able to produce the commercial “Room of Smoke.” It was a finalist at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. A few years back, I also was able to resurrect an old “Secondhand Smoke” radio concept for our client, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which we turned into a video as well. Lesson: good ideas stand the test of time.
- Uncover the unexpected. It’s gold. If you want to break through, harness the power of juxtaposition. So many humorous spots use this technique. Like Evian Roller babies or Bud Light’s Real Men of Genius Campaign. When you see something unexpected, your mind is curious to understand what’s going on. Comedians understand this. It’s why Amy Schumer is so funny. She says the unexpected.
- Trust your gut. Trust the experts. Looking at a script and imagining the final commercial takes a leap of faith. It takes trust. I read a great article about the democratization of creativity, and with the advent of iPhone cameras and apps like Instagram, everyone fancies him or herself a photographer/director/ designer. But like doctors and lawyers, advertising creatives are professionals who went to schools and learned things like visual hierarchy, history of typography and digital UX, and they win awards for their creativity. So when you are judging an idea, trust your gut. But also trust the ones around you who are the experts on whatever the subject matter is.
- Read between the lines. As a creative director, I attend a lot of client meetings. And I’m proud to say I’ve become very close friends with many of our clients. But while part of my job is presenting the creative, a bigger part is listening. I have learned to test the temperature of the room, read between the lines and feel what may be left unspoken. It is in those telepathic moments, if I anticipate their needs, I can make our clients feel understood. Ultimately, it makes both the work and relationship better.
- Don’t just be a creative director, be a teacher. Some creative directors I’ve worked with were gruff on the outside, but softies on the inside. Others would ignore you, and then days later, still ignore you. So there are geniuses and jerks. I am a nurturer. And I think all of us in advertising who’ve been blessed with being able to work so long in this amazing industry need to pass on our knowledge to other generations. For many years, I was a sponge, soaking up all the knowledge I could. And still I am soaking up new ideas, trends and mediums. But when you can squeeze in the time, squeeze out a little bit of your knowledge and share it with someone. It feels good.
I hope you soaked up some insights about what it’s like to be a creative director. If you have any other insights you’d like to share, please do. I still have room in my sponge of a brain to absorb them.