The education of a creative director

After two decades as a creative director and copywriter in advertising, I was confident I knew everything there was to know about producing strong "creative."

I thought I knew it all.

After two decades as a creative director and copywriter in the advertising business, I was confident I knew everything there was to know about producing strong “creative.”

I believed creative work came from one place and one place only: the creative department. Account executives, strategists, and planners served only to put together the brief, furnish relevant consumer insights, and then get the hell out of the way.

We might call on them if we needed someone to dig up research to justify a particular idea. But otherwise, the division of labor was clear: we came up with the concept and they sold it.

If a suit ever came along who didn't get this memo and tried to pitch a few ideas, things could get ugly fast. Once, when I was a junior writer, I saw my creative supervisor literally shove an account manager out of his office.

Last winter, however, I joined a public relations agency and discovered that things work differently here. Very differently.

Creative concepts are typically generated in brainstorm sessions, and the participants include not only writers and art directors, but account executives, strategists, and media planners. Everyone, in other words. “Not for long,” I thought when I first witnessed this. But to my surprise, this approach worked.

Not only that, it was fun. 

The account guys, media folks, and strategists in the room were bright and lively. And some of their ideas were good. Make-it-into-the-client-presentation good. 

Moreover, it was clear everyone enjoyed being there. Agency-wide brainstorms, I discovered, aren't just effective ways to quickly generate a lot of ideas – they're also very good for company morale.

Around this time, it was also explained to me that my agency was in possession of a powerful creative tool. “Really?” I replied, with interest and apprehension. “Tell me more.” 

The agency, it happens, had recently unveiled a crowd-sourcing platform for creative thinking – so we could, at a moment's notice, tap into the minds of creative thinkers around the world.  

In advertising, the notion of proprietary tools – particularly tools for generating creative ideas – is met with skepticism. There's no magic wand, any ad guy will tell you. If you need a big idea, lock a creative team in its office and don't let them out until they come up with one.

So what did I do when encouraged to put our crowdsourcing tool through its paces? 

I smiled and resolved to give it a whirl. And then, most likely, discreetly pull the plug. Once again, however, I was surprised. Make that floored. The concepts our platform generated were consistently interesting, and, every once in a while, edgy.

In the months that ensued, I became our agency's biggest fan of brainstorming. I spend my free time searching the Internet and speaking with marketing experts to find techniques, games, and exercises that can make our brainstorm sessions effective and fresh. 

Furthermore, you'll find no greater advocate of crowd-sourcing. Indeed, I'm currently negotiating with a larger, independent network in hopes of combining forces to make our platform stronger and more vibrant.

What does this mean exactly? Do ad agencies – and did I - have it wrong? 

Not exactly. If there's one thing advertising people might be overlooking, it's the importance of keeping an open mind. In our business, if you reach a point when you think you have all the answers, you may soon get a rude awakening. It happens a lot.

What's more, in the PR business, we don't have the time to be as precious with our creative ideas as our friends in advertising. Our schedules are too tight. A typical advertising assignment might come with a turnaround time of a few weeks or at least a few days. In PR, however, we often need to get stuff out the door overnight, if not the same day. 

This pace shows no sign of slowing down. So it seems we will rely on even more brainstorming and crowd-sourcing in the days ahead.

And surprisingly – at least for this former ad man - I'm really looking forward to it.

Charlie Tercek, a former creative director at ad agencies McGarryBowen, Ogilvy, Grey, and Neighbor, is the chief creative officer at GolinHarris.

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