While she was in grad school, a friend of mine relayed this quote from her anatomy professor: “I can’t verify the accuracy of the information I’m giving you.” The same is true for what you are about to read. If it doesn’t appeal to you or ring true then, by all means, disregard it. In this business, you’ve got to trust your instincts. Until the creative director, account team or client weighs in and overrules you, do your own thing. Your job is not to “put your client cap on” or “play devil’s advocate.” Your job is to trust your creative vision, constantly refine said vision, be willing to make mistakes and fail and look like a fool — and occasionally succeed.
Everything Is In Play
Nobody else on the planet has had the same set of experiences you’ve had. Your creativity is the sum total of all of these experiences and is therefore constantly being replenished. Every movie you’ve seen, song you’ve sung, poem you’ve memorized, YouTube clip you’ve watched, stand-up routine you’ve laughed at, Facebook post you’ve “liked,” conversation you’ve shared, dream you’ve had, trip you’ve taken, subject you’ve studied, memory you’ve filed away, book or magazine or tweet or piece of bathroom-stall graffiti you’ve read is creative fodder — and totally fair game. Tap into that stuff.
Less Is More (Sh*t Is Tight, Yo!)
Advertising might be the only profession where the less you write, the more you get paid. Niggle. Expunge. Economize. Turn writing into a game of Name That Tune. “I can say what that paragraph is saying in half the space.” “I can capture that brand’s essence in three words. No, two!” Work closely with your designers. More often than not you will need to see your copy in layout to know just how long-winded (or short-sighted) you’ve been. Get familiar with terms like rag, widow, orphan, negative space and why they matter. You may think you’ve written the most beautiful sentence the world has ever known, but if it doesn’t look inviting on the page or screen, the world may not be all that tempted to read it. Know enough about Photoshop and InDesign to be able to get in there and write to the space. But also stick up for yourself if you think the designer you’re working with is being lazy or stubborn. They’re notorious for that kind of shady behavior.
Read The Brief Again And Again And Again
I saw an interview with the actor Michael Fassbender in which he said he reads movie scripts two or three hundred times until he has them memorized and can perform any scene in any order. Sounds a bit excessive, right? So maybe you should only read the brief 20 or 30 times. Do it. Read it until it sinks in and takes hold. It’s the simplest thing in the world. But you’d be amazed at how many times projects get derailed because people lose sight of the brief. Underline it. Highlight it. Doodle on it. Take all the key words and do word map exercises (à la Visual Thesaurus). The answers are in there. Don’t be off-brief. If things go wrong down the road, make sure it was because the brief was ill-conceived — not your work.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
While we’re on the subject of briefs, keep in mind that a creative briefing is a great time to engage in something petty, vindictive, and vitally important to the creative process—revenge. It’s your chance to turn the tables and evaluate what those account folks have been up to. Do not sleep through a briefing. Pay attention. Stay sharp. Ascertain if what they’re handing off is a blueprint or bullshit. Could the target audience be narrowed? Are the specs accurate? Where are the assets? Do the deliverables fit the assignment? Is the deadline even humanly possible? Does the single main idea make a lick of sense? Why is the damn thing five pages long when it’s supposed to be a BRIEF?!?! But try not to get too worked up. Remember that creative reviews happen after creative briefings. In other words, the account team always bats last.
Do Your Homework
You never know where a Google search is going to lead you. Or a Flickr search. Or a Wikipedia search. A brief can only hold so much information. And there’s something pretty exciting about discovering a detail about a product that no one else in the agency (or maybe even the client) knows. Use the product. Conduct straw polls around the office or on Facebook (as long as the NDAs permit it). Call anyone you know who fits the brand’s demographic and have a conversation. Copywriting is investigating is distilling is fact-checking is explaining is inventing is re-imagining is finding that one indelible truth/benefit that applies to your product/brand/client alone. Enter the hoary tale of the Capo d’astro bar. (Read at your leisure.)
Some methods are tried and true. These may become your “process.” Maybe you like to work alone for a bit before doing the partner/group thing. Maybe you like to listen to music or walk around the block. Develop conventions that work for you and respect those that work for other people.
Sometimes things just aren’t clicking. You’re in a rut. Your “process” has become formulaic. Time to shake things up. Whiteboard it (*shudder*). Have a liquid lunch. Stay up really late. Take a nap. Put money on it. There are tools like the Creative Whack Pack by Roger Von Oech and Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt that might help. Give those a shot. Or maybe just do a few shots.
Telling a story with images instead of words doesn’t make you any less of a writer. In fact, it might just make you more of one. “The Married Life” sequence at the start of the Pixar film Up contains not a single spoken word or title card and is all the better because of it. (If you’re going to watch it, keep a tissue handy.)
Share Early And Often
Perfectionism is a luxury you can’t afford during the concepting phase. Perfectionism comes later, once a direction is chosen and you’re going full bore, so just set it aside for now. In the meantime, run your ideas up the flagpole and count salutes. Allow other people to let you know if you’re on the right track or not. Allow them to make your ideas better. Allow them to do your work for you. Whether or not you give them credit is up to you.
Read It Out Loud
It may look great on the page or screen. It may sound perfect in your head. But until you read your writing out loud, you won’t know how it’s going to sound to your audience. Listen to it like you would a piece of music, paying attention to rhythm and harmony. If it doesn’t sound right, work it over. Find the music in your writing. You can’t just be a lyricist. You have to be a composer, too.
Ideas Are Fickle
It’s easy to get attached to an idea. To fall in love with it. To think this particular idea is the one, the be-all and end-all. And sometimes that will be the case. But not often. And maybe never. Sometimes that one idea will turn out to be a lying, cheating, backstabbing junkie. Sometimes that one pristine insight you thought you loved, the one you gave everything to, the one you stayed up all night sweet-talking and massaging and convincing yourself was your ticket to the good life will turn out to be a big empty zero in the morning. Sometimes that one idea you thought was yours and yours alone will have already spent quality time with about 15 other brands or campaigns or whatever. Ideas get around. But don’t worry. You will have more ideas. You will have better ideas. You will have nicer-looking, sweeter-smelling, sexier ideas. You better believe it.
Give Yourself Deadlines
There will be deadlines built into the assignment, but these are not the only deadlines you need. Creativity is often a reductive process. “So many ideas! They’re all great! (Or they all could be with just a little love.) How can I pick just one?” You just have to. Choose and go for it. You don’t want to be at work all night, do you? Then set deadlines along the way. Little ones here and there. Ten ideas before lunch. An impromptu creative review before the end of the day. Hold yourself accountable. Enforce vile and humiliating consequences whenever a deadline is missed. Or just don’t miss any.
Ask For Help (Sooner Than Later)
This is a tough one. Because you want to figure it out, right? You want to crack it. On your own. High fives all around. Maybe you just had a bad day. You’ll sleep on it. Your subconscious will come through. Or you’ll have an epiphany in the shower tomorrow morning. Or during your commute. Or, or, or …. Meanwhile the deadline is getting ever closer, the pressure is getting ever higher and your chances of figuring it out on your own are getting ever slimmer. If you’re struggling, it’s probably because it’s a damned difficult assignment and you’re the first person to do the dirty business of trying to make real sense of it. You’re down in the trenches wrestling with this beast, asking questions that nobody else had thought to ask. So ask them. There’s no shame in that.
Allow Yourself To Suck
You’ve probably heard of the Law of 10,000 Hours. I don’t know if Malcolm Gladwell formulated it or simply beat it to death in one of his overwrought bestsellers. (I’m not a fan.) The crux is that before you can be great at something you’ve got to be bad at it for a really long time. This will be painful, most of all because you’ll recognize that you’re bad. Because you have good taste you’ll realize the work you’re creating is not up to par with what you consider good. (The people who don’t even know they stink are the ones who are doomed.) So be bad for as long as it takes. Put it on the page and put it out there and put up with the embarrassment of getting called out on your woeful ineptitude. Learn a little something from each failure. Embrace the agonizing slowness of getting good.
On Receiving Creative Direction …
When receiving feedback, the actor Bradley Whitford said the first thing he thinks is, Fuck you! The second is, I suck. And the third is, What can I do to make it better? These reactions, I believe, are pretty universal to any creative endeavor where someone else is performing quality control. So feel free to go through these stages. They are like a condensed version of the grieving process. The trick is to minimize the amount of time you spend on thoughts 1 and 2 and move on to thought 3 as quickly as possible. Because your work can always be better. And only by getting that rage and self doubt out of the way can you start to hear — really hear — what your partner, creative director, account team, or client is trying to tell you.
Business Never Personal
This is the title of an EPMD album. Not their best, mind you. But in the ad game — like the rap game — it’s easy to get emotionally invested in the work. After all, it’s subjective. You’re not making widgets. You’re not an accountant. If a balance sheet doesn’t add up, that’s pretty cut and dry. But if somebody doesn’t like what you’ve written or asks you to “tweak it” or “make it flow better,” it’s easy to get your nose bent out of shape. Ask them to explain what they mean. This will be a good exercise — and beneficial — for both of you. In return, be able to defend the choices you’ve made on rational grounds. Don’t turn it into a pissing contest. Keep it about the work, not the personalities involved. Stefan Sagmeister said it best: “Be nice. Nobody wants to work with talented assholes.”
Have Some Fun
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Eye roll, right? But if you see an opportunity to inject a little levity, playfulness or humanity into an assignment, you might as well take it. Chances are you’ll have more fun writing it and your audience will have more fun reading it. There’s an art to this as well. You still have to keep the target demographic in mind and hit the right notes, whether they be highbrow or lowbrow, sophisticated or silly. Simply put, give yourself permission to do the kind of writing you enjoy for every project you work on. Heck, even eulogies can be funny.
In closing, I’d like to apologize for this being so long. As either Oscar Wilde, Blaise Pascal, T.S. Eliot or Mark Twain once said, “If I had more time, I would have written less.”
P.S. Go easy on the adverbs.