creative brain of an art director

The Creative Process: How to Work With a Hot Mess

Remember the show Dirty Jobs? The host worked alongside employees who were tasked with some of the most difficult, bizarre and messiest jobs you could possibly imagine. If you think I am bringing this up as a metaphor for the creative process, you’re wrong. This is the creative process.

Everything about the creative process is just plain messy. The rules are few and far between. It can be mind-numbing figuring out where to begin, let alone when you’re finished. And, just like any messy job, the creative process can be a real pain in the butt. Fortunately, we have a deadline to help move us along, which should be a blessing—but most of the time it becomes a curse. So, what keeps us from sinking further down in the muck and the mire?

A Clear, Concise Creative Brief

The creative brief is the road map for what you need to say and how you want to say it. Hopefully, your creative brief contains a morsel of insight or shines a light on the one thing you want your audience to believe or the problem you’re trying to solve.

Arrows weaving over straight red arrow & runner

Once you finish writing your brief, then the real fun part begins.

Concepting, ideation, brainstorming—no matter what you call it, it’s a lot like playing pinball with your brain. You’re constantly moving back and forth from the key thought in the brief to various creative resources such as stock photography websites, creative advertising trade pubs (for inspiration only) and then back to the brief and then over to your art or copy partner for interpretation, inspiration or humiliation. Sound like fun? Now repeat it over, always with the problem you’re trying to solve in the back of your mind.

That’s what’s so fascinating about the creative process. There isn’t one. And that’s what makes it so frustrating. If there was a process, we would have software programs do what we do. Until that day comes (my apologies to account people everywhere), all we have is good old-fashioned brainpower and human experience.

The Creative Gauntlet

A concept that survives the ideation process usually takes the form of a metaphor because it’s such an effective way to disarm your audience.

Newton's cradle made of light bulbs

But it doesn’t have to. Creative concepts can be emotions, facts, or data.

In true creative fashion, I’ll start at the end.

I always have the following questions handy as we go. This questioning process offers a nice way to filter through your concepts in real-time. My personal creative gauntlet is as follows:

  • Is this concept unique? Have I seen it before? If so, was it in a different category or industry?
  • The more original, the better. Is it entertaining enough to pique the viewer’s interest? Will it stop you in your tracks?
  • Is it relevant to your audience? Does it solve a problem? Does it raise a compelling question only your brand can answer?
  • Is there a human connection or emotion you can tap into? Emotion is critical to good advertising. It has a large effect on purchasing behavior and is the foundation of strong brands.
    All great ads contain a humorous or empathetic element that is connected to the product because emotional appeal (or ‘pathos’) has a powerful effect on our brains. This effect has been known for thousands of years –  pathos is one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion because emotion can often trigger buying behavior that logic and credibility can’t influence.
  • Is there an interesting physical attribute of the brand to promote? For instance speed, strength, convenience, or, for pharmaceutical brands, mechanism of action.

OK, time’s up. How many boxes did you check? The more checks, the greater likelihood you’re on to something.

Check inside of chalkboard light bulb

What? We’re not done? Of course not.

So, you may have a handful of concepts that survive the gauntlet, but then it’s time to put your concept to the ultimate test. Brace yourself for this one:

Does Your Concept Tell The Truth?

This one’s my favorite.

Does your concept truly resonate or reward your audience for spending a little time with your brand? Did your audience gain value from what you had to share? Would it compel someone to share it with a co-worker or friend? Come on-honestly?

That last one is really tough, but it’s what you should always strive toward. The quicker and more simply you can share your big brand truth, the more appreciative your target audience (and your client) will be.

OK, ready to get your hands dirty? Good luck. Here’s a thought-starter—the ultimate advertising truism. Written 40 years ago by ad legend William Bernbach, it still rings loud and clear today:

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”

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