There are several hills I’m willing to die on, and one of those hills is that people that who work in the creative industries and enjoy their job are better at it. I have no data to prove this, I have no graph or chart or diagram. I just believe it, but I’m not the only one.
More recently, the argument for (work + fun = good work) seems to have found its place in the collaboration between our very own ‘Van Wilder’, Ryan Reynolds, and ex-McCann George Dewey after the wild (but originally deemed by 20th Century Fox unlikely) success of Deadpool (and Deadpool 2), the duo birthed Maximum Effort Productions.
To naïve idealists like me who believe good advertising can be fun, Maximum Effort is a bit of inspiration. From the outside at least, it seems free of dogma, doctrine and tradition. It’s an ideas house. Not burdened by ‘we’ve always done it this way’ or ‘we have to tick these boxes’ or ‘we have to stick to this process’ straitjacket that a lot of us in the industry feel oh so tightly around us.
In fact, it appears to be the result of getting a small number of switched-on people in a room, removing restriction, hierarchy, vagueness and ego – and focusing on a shared problem, challenge, or opportunity. It’s in its purest form – what we’re all supposed to be doing.
It’s not just Maximum Effort who chose to forgo years of growing dogmatic limescale. No Fixed Address and Greg Hahn are making Mischief together, Omid Farhang (ex-Momentum) and Shaq O’Neill have teamed up to found Majority and redress the representative imbalance in the industry – there are these and many more breaking new ground – and why not?
The old school appears to be floundering a little, and the new school is all kinds of kicking off. Here are nine things that I’ve noticed that seem to be helping the upstarts:
1- Having unequivocal goalposts.
There’s a lot of debate around what the most important part of the creative process is. Is it the insight? The idea? The audience? The effect on culture? Of course not. It’s what you were trying to do in the first place. Obviously. Where are we going? Why are you spending this time, money and effort? For what? Answer that ‘what are we trying to achieve’ question early and remind yourself of the answer every five minutes whenever you’re making something. It’s mind-blowing how many marketing campaigns absolutely hit the target yet completely miss the point.
2- Actually ‘jumping off’ that ‘jumping off point’.
All creative work is a leap of faith. We can certainly close the gap with data, strategy, proof and safety – but in the end we all have to jump. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, link previously unlinked things together, try new stuff out, turn old things over. For goodness sake don’t only do what you can prove will work – any idiot with Google can do that. We need to swim out into the unknown to get anywhere, if we waited for proof we’d never get off the beach.
3- Using models and processes as tools, not rules.
Processes are designed to get you places, not be ends in themselves. Don’t let them cage you in. We in the marketing industry often need reminding that ‘all models are wrong; some models are useful’. Don’t force things into boxes, that isn’t the way the world works. Get comfortable with unknowns, use models to get you places, don’t be constrained by them, they’re just tools remember.
4- Making sure ideas are democratised.
I once read that creativity is like washing a pig. It’s messy. It has no rules. No clear beginning, middle, or end. It’s kind of a pain, and when you’re done, you’re not sure if the pig is clean or even why you were washing a pig in the first place. This feels apt. The process can’t be put on a production line, you never know what’s going to solve the problem, and you never know where the solution is going to come from. Lots of agencies claim to have flat hierarchies and open forums but the real test is if the CEO could say to you; “Oh yeah, that completely mad brilliant idea? The intern came up with that.” Be that agency. It’s a dangerous assumption that there’s a direct correlation between hierarchy and ideas.
5- Having no monopoly on truth.
There are several ways to skin a cat. Just like there are several ways of interpreting data. Just like there are several ways to get a point across. If anyone tells you they’ve found the only way, they’re either naïve, lying, or the messiah. One thing I’ve seen scupper a lot of great ideas (and great creative people) is trying to get to a single solution to the problem. It has to match with the CCO’s opinion, or the MD, or CEO. There are 100 creative ways to solve every problem – choose the best one, not the only one.
6- Not forgetting we’re human beings.
They’ve gotta pick up what we’re laying down, folks. People aren’t segments, archetypes, buckets or sub-groups – they’re bipedal animals. Wandering around on two legs full of emotions and worries and insecurities and thoughts that they think make them crazy. Keep that in mind. I’ve worked on projects where nobody actually reads the copy from the perspective of who we’re talking to before it goes out. Good agencies. Agencies you’ve heard of. Seems like a pretty serious thing to forget, doesn’t it? Unless it’s a very niche campaign marketing Dentastix directly to Labradors – you’re probably talking to people.
7- Not taking things so seriously.
It’s well documented that we’re currently in the midst of two pandemics. The obvious one and the other one. GSOHF-20 (pronounced ‘gussoffe’), an acronym for ‘Global Sense of Humour Failure – 20’, has really been around for decades and doesn’t show much sign of abating. Marketers should remember that there’s always a place for humour somewhere, especially when things are terrible (that’s exactly when it’s most needed). If anyone tells you humour isn’t a viable (coping) strategy, feel free to break wind in their general direction and guffaw heartily. That’s what we do here in the UK.
8- Starting from indifference.
Everyone working in marketing should keep a big sign on their desk that says, ‘They probably just don’t care. Start there’. Lots of marketing is just entertainment – and that’s ok. For many product categories and sectors, simply entertaining your audience is a perfectly sensible and effective tactic. People like to be entertained, and entertainment doesn’t have to be logical, emotive, norm flipping or anything else. Just entertaining, it sticks. Don’t overanalyse it and don’t bother trying to measure it. Those are rabbit holes you’ll get lost in – to no avail.
9- Going free range.
A lot of agencies treat their people like dairy cows. Penned in and milked for profit with billable hours, soul-destroying work and abuse. I always buy free range milk. Not just to make sure this metaphor fits, but because I also quite like cows. You may be interested to know that the healthy lifespan of a free-range dairy cow is about 20 years, and most intensively farmed dairy cows are slaughtered after four of five years because their milk production drops and/or they become chronically lame or infertile. Are you seeing the parallels?
People are happier, more productive and live longer when they’re free range. Freedom really is important – there’s a good reason Americans take a whole day to celebrate it. It frees our minds and gives us the space to make things better and find new ways. Every good idea in history has come when the pressure is off. In the shower, on a walk, over a pint. Treat your cows well, they’ll treat you well in return.
I reckon these are points that anyone can build into their operation. It’s not rocket science, it’s not even science – it’s common sense. I’m a consultant, so I know common sense. Applying it is 90% of my job.
It feels like there’s a glowing space for some likable folks having a little fun, making some people smile and doing their part to knock over some pillars of the bullshit fences that are holding lots of us back.
Many big names have already boarded the ‘start your own agency train’ for good reason. (Mr. McConaughey – I’ve already taken the liberty of registering ‘Alright, Alright, Alright Productions’ – call me). The opportunity is there, good creative people are sick of the paralysis, good work is back in vogue, and common sense might be having a renaissance.
Reassessing the old stuff and building new stuff has always been the way of progress throughout history – there’s hope in this turning point. Let’s see if we can keep that fire burning, who knows where we’ll get to.