Confessions of an Ad Creative

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

This week, we shift our “Confessions” series to look at the creative side of the agency business, once the cornerstone of advertising. The Mad Men of yesteryear are a thing of the past, but the ad world is still organized around these notoriously difficult and outsized personalities. We spoke with a veteran creative about why creatives can be so difficult, their awards show fetish, and why your great ad idea isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. In keeping with the honesty of the series, we’ve left in our anonymous creative’s saltier language. Please contact me at the email address at the bottom of this article if you would like to participate in giving an honest take on what your job is really like.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding outsiders have of how ad creatives work?
Whenever a creative puts work on the table, he or she is taking a risk. Everyone in the room has an agenda. The strategist wants to ensure his or her “vision” is being fulfilled. The suit is worried about making sure the client is being heard. The media guy wants to be sure it won’t piss off the networks (because God forbid he not get his fruit basket and tickets to “Book of Mormon” this year). And none of them are wrong. In fact, all of them are doing their jobs. But at the end of the day, the work the creative makes has to satisfy all of it. And that’s not even the fucked-up part. What’s really fucked up is that once all of those people have been satisfied, that poor creative has to put the result out in the world, to be judged. And when it is, they’re the only ones that are judged for it. Account people don’t have books. Strategists don’t have reels. Media guys don’t have portfolio sites. Only creatives are solely defined by the end product, despite the fact there were so many people in the room trying to affect it. Next time you think a creative is being difficult, or whiny, consider for a moment the fact that next time he has to interview for a job, having worked on a successful account isn’t enough. He has to put up the actual work and say, “This is what I made.” He doesn’t get to blame the bad layout on the account guy who forced it down his throat or the horrible logic on the strategist. He has to claim it as his own and let the chips fall where they may. So go easy on the kid. For once.

What’s the No. 1 thing that holds back creativity in advertising today?
Jesus Christ, that’s a loaded question. How about this: Running a publicly held company in America is a scary thing right now. Everyone is jumpy. Everyone is talking about a double-dip recession. And when money gets tight and things get scary, MBAs get mathy. If you’re the CEO of a decent-sized, publicly traded company today, the single best way to make sure your shareholders don’t hate you is to quantify the shit out of everything you do, before you do it. Unfortunately, that runs counter to making great work. The best work is work that takes risks, and right now, finding clients with cash who are willing to take risks is a difficult thing. The silver lining is that when you do have clients willing to take risks and spend money, your work looks that much more genius next to the massive volumes of vanilla bullshit that most agencies are being forced to pump out right now.

What role in the agency gets the least respect from creatives, and why?
It’s hard to single out just one role. I think it all comes down to chemistry, which isn’t exactly defined by what you do. We’re all defined by the work that we produce together. If it doesn’t get made, it doesn’t count. If it gets made and it blows, it’s a direct reflection of the team that worked on it. Anyone that’s not directly taking part in making the best possible thing a reality, a produced live reality, is of no use to a creative.

The rap on creatives is that they only care about awards. Fair?
I think that the younger a creative is, the more he or she has to care about awards. It’s the system we’ve built for ourselves. Awards are really the only way a young creative team can get their name associated with the work that they do. Without awards, getting noticed as an individual or a team is a pretty tall order. Agencies and clients certainly aren’t going to PR specific teams, especially when they’re young and unknown. Make no mistake; advertising award shows are an incestuous joke. Nobody outside of advertising gives a shit. But unfortunately, they’re a necessary incestuous joke for younger teams looking to move up the creative food chain. After you’ve won enough of them, they stop being as important from a career perspective, but in the beginning, they’re all a young team’s got.

What are your thoughts on crowdsourcing? Are ideas being commoditized?
When you start to make a name for yourself in advertising, this strange thing starts happening where any asshole with an idea pitches it to you as “The perfect ad for _______.” And I’m not talking about our fellow advertising professionals, I’m talking about your mom, a cabbie, your doorman, a one-night-stand, EVERYONE. And they’re always bad. But they’re bad because the people pitching them have no context. They don’t know the strategy. They don’t know the client’s needs. They know nothing. So, of course, it’s going to suck. But crowdsourcing doesn’t have that problem. You can brief a vast number of people well, and if they’re intelligent, you’ll get back great ideas. So to the advertising people who dismiss crowdsourcing as never netting out with good stuff, STFU. There is, however, a silver lining: Making a brilliant idea a brilliant reality is really, really, really hard. There’s a reason Hollywood makes billions of dollars telling stories. They can take a script and produce the fuck out of it. No one else in the world is as good at it as they are. In fact, no one else comes close. And the same is true of advertising. It’s great that you have an amazing idea, but if you don’t have the means to make it an amazing reality, you’re done.

Why do creatives leave agencies so often?
A lot of creatives jump for the exact same reasons everybody else does: money, respect, title, advancement, bonuses, etc. I will say this, though: I have a really, really hard time respecting any creative that’s spent more than five years in one place. There are a few cases of people to whom creativity is so inherent in their very being that geography is irrelevant, but those cases are few and far between. Comfort is a major enemy of creativity.

It seems like the real money in advertising nowadays is in automating it, not creating it. Ever think you’re getting the short end of the stick?
At the end of the day, creativity will always win, and carpet-bombing the world with shitty advertising will work, too. Brands have to ask themselves, “Do I want to talk to a billion people, and have one in a million buy my shit, or do I want to talk to a million people, and have all of them walk away with an opinion of me?” Personally, I’ll choose to work with the brands who prefer the latter for the rest of my days. We’re getting rich either way.

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