The Creative Process

I’ve spent most of my working life as a copywriter, generally teamed up with an art director. While art directors and copywriters each have their individual skills that are applied at the later stages of a project, the initial part of the creative process is a collective panic to come up with a concept or idea. Whether it’s an an email, social campaign, or TV ad, there should always be a single-minded thought upon which to base a campaign. Otherwise, it’ll be a bit of a mess. This is the first of three things I am sure of in the creative process.

I’ll attempt, tongue firmly in cheek, to describe the events that happen in order to get a new campaign to go live, and to ensure that all the stakeholders don’t hate it. Keep in mind, I never said that they’ll love it.

The brief

It all starts here. A great job comes in. The account manager animatedly briefs the creative team. The creative team is happy. Cue collective excitement punctuated with “She’s always been a great client, always gets behind good creative,” and “He just gets it. That’s why I love working on his jobs…cool guy, too.” This feeling lasts anywhere from an hour to a couple of days until…

Guys, the client has changed the brief

It all stops here. This is the second thing I’m sure of. The first brief is rarely the final brief. In my experience, you rarely get to the final brief before the market situation shifts, directional self-doubt sets in, or a new, highly influential stakeholder gets involved and has a different point of view, rendering the first brief DOA.

Then this happens: The account manager rebriefs the creative team with trepidation. The team unreasonably, but consistently, vents their frustrations to the account manager, who, in reality, would rather chew their fingers off than manage this change. Cue collective anguish punctuated with cries of “I hate working with him,” “How dare he care about his boss’s opinion on the brief…never liked him anyway,” and “What do you mean she isn’t perfect and nobody gets it right the first time?”

This lasts until the venting has reached the point of affecting the room temperature. Enter the creative director (a former champion of venting) with the stark reminder that we all have lights to keep on at home, so get to it.

FYI, I was brilliant at venting, and I have at least 20 LinkedIn endorsements from fellow creatives to prove it.

The gush

It all starts again here. Although the gush sounds like something you need antibiotics to treat, in reality it’s the best way to describe the flow of ideas, often dreadful, that creatives put out into the world the first time around. Cue collective excitement punctuated by “Does it have to be an email, or could we train pigeons to drop off bespoke invites?” and “Brand guidelines are just guidelines, man.”

This is a really fun part, especially if you get a good flow going between the art director and copywriter. Usually, three concepts are brought forward from this stage. The first of which will be wrong.

You’ll almost always fight for the one that ain’t right

This is the third thing I’m sure of. As a creative, nine times out of 10, you’ll get behind the wrong idea initially. It’ll be beautiful. You’re sure it’ll work. You’ll tear your hair out wondering why the client or account manager says that they really like it, but…

In the back of your mind, you always knew. It was niggling away. It’s like rationalizing marrying a fire-juggling, knife-swallowing, tightrope-walking beauty. Fun, but let’s be honest, they probably won’t be around long enough to significantly contribute to the pension fund. It ain’t gonna work, so best to end it now before everyone gets hurt.

Once you do, you’ll realize that either the second or third of your favorites is usually “the one.” And then you begin to craft and build the right idea from there.

Getting it through

The more you work on “the one,” the more precious it becomes. It’s like a child you and your partner are nurturing to maturity, minus the daycare and college fees. So, naturally, you love it even more than your kids. The reality is that every criticism of “the one” is crushing. It kills you. And it should. Because it means you believe in—and love—the work.

You learn to take the criticism. Sometimes it’s even fair and justified. Creatives have even been known to utter, “Hey, that’s a good point. Let me make that change. Glad we can work collaboratively.”

Repeat this process two to three times. By the end, you usually have the finished idea. A creative team’s job is to try to keep the integrity of the idea through a few rounds of changes. This is the hardest part of the creative process.

The post-job glow

The glow is a mixture of relief, hopefully a little bit of pride in what you’ve created, and beer.

But to be serious for the first time in about 1,000 words, it takes perseverance, patience, and a lot of skill to guide a project from the inkling of an idea right through to fruition. And at the end of if it all, if it still makes sense—and you’ve retained some of the magic of the original thought—then you’ve done a great job. The end.

P.S. A note on imposter syndrome

If any creative ever tells you they’ve never experienced imposter syndrome, they’re either lying or are a walking definition of narcissism.

Self-doubt is human. Sometimes the ideas are slow to come or they’re simply just bad at the beginning. But it always gets better, and the epiphany is usually only a change of scenery away.