Three meetings about the creative process

The first meeting I wasn’t actually at.

To my mind, those are often the best meetings.

In a Thinkbox forum on TV creativity,¬† John Townshend, creative partner at the agency Now, said that one of his favourite ads – Orange Tango from HHCL – happened because the agency was given the license to be playful, and he said that that didn’t occur often enough these days.

I’d like to thank John for his excellent taste, and say he’s dead right¬† – but I’d also like to point out that it was never QUITE that simple.

Sadly, clients didn’t turn up and say “Ah you’re the guys with the initials H, H, C and L. Feel free to try whatever you like with my brand”.

I think we had the most interesting reel in London for over 10 years because we had an amazing process.

Creative people hate hearing this. They want it to be battles of wills and storming out in a huff.

But actually it’s about having a very tight process and working closely with the client.

However,¬† to a lot of creatives, “process” is a dirty word.

The second meeting I WAS at, because I was speaking at it.

My friend Camilla Honey of JFDI had invited me to talk to some new business directors about making the most of your creative department.

Right at the end of the session, Gemma Morris of Brooklyn Brothers asked the killer question.

“We had one client who said they wanted “another Gorilla, another Sony Balls” – then they gave the business to a different agency and just ran a new version of their previous ad.

“What happened ?”

Grrreat question.

My answer is – don’t¬† blame the client.

My belief is that actually most clients do want an ad with the cut-through of a “Gorilla”. They’re not winding you up.

But they need to be taken through the right process to get there.

(Which is the responsibility of the agency.)

And there’s that word again.

That dirty word, beginning with P and ending with S.

Now the “p—–s” I’m talking about isn’t so long or unwieldy that you can’t use it.

Anyone can have a great “p——s” that wins them pitches and the envy of their colleagues.

I could even show you this “p——s” in action.

But let’s get onto the last meeting. Because that’s when it all got very real.

This was The Friday Club, one of those “ad-agency-folk meet start-ups” things – set up by a very bright and persuasive guy called Richard Fearn.

I say persuasive because he’d got a fantastic bunch of ad-folk together.

Of the 4 start-up ideas, the one I liked the most was a bike-light called Blaze that projects a signal a few yards ahead of you onto the road  Рstraight out of the blind spot Рreally cool, like having your own bat-signal.

I told the founder that her invention reminded of a very powerful Volvo campaign in the US in the 90s. Where they showed testimonials of people who were only alive because they’d been in Volvos.

What you’re selling, I said – maybe a touch melodramatically¬† – is life and death.

Then some bloke with a mighty impressive handlebar moustache sitting behind me said “no, that’s a bad idea – what happens if a cyclist has your light but still gets into an accident and¬† dies …”

And this huge hub-bub broke out.

Now that was interesting. That could have started a fascinating debate.

However, the woman running the bike light company started back-pedalling furiously and said – “I didn’t say that – he did” pointing at me like I’d said something really horrific.

I felt like one of those old HM Bateman “The man who” cartoons … In this case, the man who dared put forward an idea in a forum where supposedly bold marketing thinkers meet supposedly radical thinking entrepreneurs …


Anyway, Richard waved his hands to halt the debate .. . he had to keep order, I suppose, and we were only about 30 minutes into the day.

(Incidentally, I wonder if the bike-light inventor sided with the other guy because of his handlebar moustache ? Just a thought.)

But what I’d have liked to say is this –

There’s a value in coming up with concerns about any idea. But all interesting ideas have something difficult about them. That’s what makes them interesting.

And in this case I believe the idea is still valid.

You could use posters in cycle stores, and short clips online, with people saying “I’m still alive because of this product”.¬† And then have a sub-line saying ” We can’t solve the problem of cycle deaths completely – but we’re trying, one cyclist at a time”.

Or something better than that, but you get the idea.

After all, did that worry stop Volvo in the 1990s ? No, because it’s not relevant – you’re showing people who are still alive because they used the product, you’re not saying “we’re God and we can stop death ever happening to you”.

But people are going to have concerns about any interesting ideas.

There’s a myth that great ideas just emerge, pure and instantly acceptable to everyone, like the¬† Virgin Mary appearing in amongst the M&S sandwiches ….

Or Ant and Dec …

Doesn’t happen. You’re always going to get debate and worries.

The way round it ?

You’ve got it.

The right process.

A process led by people who know how to cherish great ideas, and who know that difficult questions have to be answered …

Of course, Blaze could always run a line that says “A rather nifty idea in the area of bike safety”.

Accurate, unarguable, no problems …. but not necessarily gonna flog those lights at ¬£100+ a pop.

That’s why I always like to push.

As some great artist once said – a ship is safest when it’s in the harbour. But it’s not much of a ship there.

  • Richard Fearn

    Steve. Thanks for the shout on the Friday Club. Of course, what you didn’t know is that the whole event was set up to test whether the prominence of facial hair was killing the creative industries. I think it’s clear where we ended up on that one. My advice…Give in. Grow a bushy tache. And then the world might listen to your sage-like advice on the importance of process in achieving creative greatness…. I’m thinking Magnum era Tom Selleck might work for you!¬†

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