The Nature of Creativity

When I started in advertising, I was in awe of creatives.

These were the big boys, all of whom smoked, many of them pipes, who went to the pub at midday, and tottered back rather later with The Answer To The Brief. They got paid a ton of money, which I didn’t, but I did get 25p luncheon vouchers, which they didn’t.

There were two terrifying female copywriters, Liz Cowley and Carol Adler, who was Larry Adler’s daughter. The Creative Director was Leon Lerner. He’d been a cab driver at some point in the past. He’s now in his eighties, and is a hypnotherapist.

This doesn’t sound very promising, but we were really quite good. It wasn’t until I started having ideas of my own that I realised we could have been a bit better.

Then, a little while ago, Alec Fowler, one of the most self-effacing and one of the best UK art directors, said to me, “Well, it’s all down to the brief.”

Years later, Geoff Howard-Spink, in 1992, swept into my office with a brief  I’d written for him to sign. He said, “Steve, do you want them to get excited or do you want them to go to sleep?”

At Euro RSCG, Andy Bunday said to me, “It is all entirely logical. If the brief is clear and right, we just follow the trail to the inevitable solution. There should never be a weird, lateral leap of creativity. The brief should stop that.”

The worst briefs do tend to be the wide-open ones. And, unfortunately, digital marketing has tended to make things worse, especially when involving social networking. Jeremy Thorpe-Woods, planning director of The Blue Hive, said to me recently that this merely puts the onus on the person writing the brief, who is often the account planner, to make the objective of the brief absolutely clear. The Blue Hive is Ford’s UK integrated agency in the UK, and is owned by WPP.

Have a look at The Great Schlep to see just how well this can work.

Actually, I don’t think it’s the internet which is causing the problem.

It’s caused by falling advertising budgets. If you have to write advertising which now has to work in a third of the developed world, lip-synch is no longer an option. Look at any number of any international car commercials. They are all interchangeable.

John Klawitter, ex Leo Burnett, Chicago, has an interesting point of view about all this when thinking about Leo Burnett’s golden period in the 1960s ans 70s:

Charles Eames and I both disapproved of the work ‘Creative’. He preferred to think of it as ‘problem-solving’, a more humble approach, but a welcome one in show biz and the ad biz where ego so easily gets in the way of good work. I, on the other hand, was never able to find words to describe Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright or Truman Capote. Maybe ‘good problem solvers’ fits best.”

I agree. And it fits with other forms of creativity, such as engineering.

But, at the centre of this little exploration of the nature of creativity, lies the brief. If it’s no good, the creative team should demand a re-think and a re-write.

Better still, the creative director is perfectly within his or her rights to demand better from planners and account handlers. Most creative directors, by the time they’ve reached the top, are editors, enthusers and teachers. They don’t have time to write all the ads themselves, but they do have time to review what’s been written and to champion what is great. Paul Weinberger excelled at this at Lowe Howard-Spink, and probably still does.

So, to my mind, great creative work depends upon a great brief. And a great brief depends upon client, planners and account people agreeing that brief before any creative team is briefed, because crap in, crap out.

Finally, my thanks go to Zoe Battiscombe-Scott for pointing out in the original versio. of this blog that Leon Lerner is very much alive.

500 years ahead of its time

A Great Idea