The 10 habits of highly effective ad creatives

Creativity is often caricatured as that unplanned eureka moment, but in fact a growing body of evidence suggests creativity is like any other habit: It must be nurtured.

But the how is the hard part. Everyone’s method of spurring creativity is different. Digiday spoke to a group of ad creatives to see what their creative processes look like and what tricks and habits they’ve developed to make sure they keep their — and their teams’ — creative juices flowing without burning out. While serendipitous moments of inspiration in the shower do matter, these are a few useful tactics and important markers to keep in mind as a creative.

1. Go live life
“You have to immerse yourself in the world and absorb a lot of life and really fill yourself up with that,” said Chris Garbutt, executive creative director at Ogilvy. “If you are empty and all you do is go to work everyday, you won’t have much. There’s a lot of rational thinking on the client side, and our job is to translate the rational into the emotional.  To do that, you have to be in touch with your own feelings and not be afraid to expose those feelings to a group of people in a room.”

2. Listen to your gut — and others
“Your first gut reaction is really important,” said Patrick Stern, chief creative officer at iCrossing. “Anyone can be a catalyst in this process. Very quickly after a brief, I’m looking to see everything up on a wall and to get gut reactions — it can be from the account person, the technologist, anyone.”

3. Consume everything
“I immerse myself completely in knowing everything that’s been done in a genre when I’m working on something, to know where the boundaries are of what has and hasn’t been done,” said Jason Zada, film director. “I consume a lot of things — whether it’s movies, TV shows, articles, just a lot of media — it’s part of knowing what’s fresh or interesting or what hasn’t been done.”

4. But also know when to turn everything off
“I try really hard to go between consuming a lot of culture and not consuming any culture,” said Matt O’Rourke, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. “A lot of people sit and watch and read and talk about everything, but you need to take time to process it all and think about what it really means and the broader implications of it.”

5. Forget “brainstorming”
“No great idea ever came out of a brainstorm — no one takes accountability,” said Shira Bogart, group creative director at AKQA. “People management becomes important in developing ideas — you have to keep teams focused, inspired and sometimes a little scared. Playing into people’s strengths helps move through failure quickly and productively.”

6. Find your peak creative moments
“For many writers, it’s first thing in the morning before life has cluttered our minds; young art directors come alive mid-afternoon, and many designers are night owls,” observed Bogart. “Helping teams embrace these peak moments creates a great work environment.”

7. Go for a run
“I will get out and shut my brain off by going for a run or going to the gym,” said O’Rourke, an avid climber. “When you are doing something physical and repetitive like running or swimming, you can choose to focus on what you are doing physically — it’s enough of a distraction that you don’t have to reflect on anything– but you can also choose to just think, and it gives you more control over the direction your thinking goes in.”

8. Be distracted
“I can never focus on things for more than an hour at a time,” said Zada, who has been taking breaks in the middle of the day to go to the movies. “Otherwise if you force it for too long, then you start over-thinking things and second guessing yourself.”

9. Try a creative exercise
“Micro-assignments are really useful,” said O’Rourke.”Like asking your team to come up with a script for a response to a customer-complaint call — you never use these things, but they help teams get their heads in a different space.”

10. Use it or lose it
“I think [creativity] functions like a muscle: It gets stronger the more you exercise it,” said Steve Babcock, executive creative director at Evolution Bureau. “It all comes down to how much you enjoy being creative — if you enjoy it, you will find reasons to exercise it, and the more you exercise it, the better you’ll get.”