Nick Gill: 10 Things I’ve Learned That Might Help
9th August 12
This piece was originally published in Creative Circle’s 2012 Annual last month. It’s packed full of advice from the great and the good, with special mention to our own John Hegarty and also to Ben Kay on how to write an advertising blog. You can buy a copy of the annual in magazine form here.
Author: Nick Gill, Executive Creative Director, BBH London
‘Creative’. I’ve never really come to terms with this word. The very notion that some people are defined as creative, whether by trade or persuasion, I still find strange. Even if I wasn’t creative the last thing I’d do is admit to it.
When I was at school I never thought of myself as a creative person. Just someone who could draw and paint quite well. And these basic skills would be my ticket out of obscurity.
But growing up I soon realised that for all my talent I was never going to be an artist. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough. I just wasn’t made that way.
Because someone had tuned my brain to solving problems. Give me a blank sheet of paper and I’d break out in a cold sweat. Ask me to draw a picture that included a giraffe, a lawn mower and a magic carpet and I’d enjoy working out how to cunningly weave these three seemingly disparate objects into one satisfying image.
I went to art college in Manchester. I stood in the graphic design studio on day one, waiting for a tutor to read out my name. But it never happened. This is because they had me down for another course. One entitled ‘Design for communication media’. ‘What’s that when it’s at home?’ I enquired. ‘Advertising’ came the reply. And that’s how I got into this business. I fell into it. Like a drunk tripping over a chair leg and landing in the arms of Charlize Theron. I am one lucky bastard.
Because advertising is a great career. And ‘creative’ is a truly wonderful way to go through life. To make money out of your imagination is as exciting as it is scary.
What have I learned from my time in the business? Here are a few things that might help.
1. Learn the rules.
People say that if you’re to be taken seriously as an impressionist painter you’ve got to spend five years life drawing. In other words you’ve got to learn the rules before you can break them. So everyone starting a career in advertising should know how communication ‘works’. Get a good knowledge of the basics early on, from how to respond to a brief to the craft skills needed to realise an idea.
2. Break the rules.
But then of course you must learn how to break those rules. A piece of communication that doesn’t feel like a piece of communication will stand out and be remembered. Fresh ideas, freshly crafted, born out of a fresh strategy. These are The Holy Grail. They’re hard to find. Hard to get out. Research tends to penalise them. But when they happen the whole world talks about them and brands are made famous. Simple eh? I wish.
3. Be your harshest critic.
Nobody should push you harder than yourselves. There’s nothing a CD likes more than a team saying, ‘You know that idea you approved? We think we’ve come up with something better’. Never be satisfied with your work. Or your ability for that matter. Self-awareness is a good quality. The creatives that believe they’re great so often aren’t. Because ‘great’ describes a finished article and the truly great creatives never stop developing. Never stop asking questions. Which leads me to:
4. Be open-minded.
There are so many ways to solve a problem. There’s often a way that’s even better than the genius way you’ve found. And even when you’ve got an idea it can change beyond recognition in its development. Creativity is an organic process. It’s up to you to stay receptive to new ways of making something better. But open-mindedness is also about being open to different ways of working. It’s about embracing new opportunities in media and technology. It’s about saying ‘Yes’ a lot, and then thinking about the consequences later.
5. Stay positive.
Occasionally you’ll come up with the most brilliant idea that will be so right in every way and it still won’t happen. Why? Ultimately it doesn’t matter. The important thing is you bounce back with something even better. Remember those toys ‘Weebles’? Little dolls with rounded bottoms? ‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down?’ ‘Course you do. Well, the best creatives are like Weebles. You can hit them as hard as you like but they still come back with a smile on their face and a better idea. Negativity and defeatism get you precisely nowhere in our trade.
6. Stay young.
Experience is always a good thing to have. Experience helps you organise information and get to answers quicker and with more efficiency. But experience won’t always get you to the best idea. Because great ideas are often born out of a naïve response to a question. I’ve worked with exciting young teams and they’ll come back with forty solutions to a problem. Thirty-nine of them will be unusable but the fortieth will be genius. The team might not know why it’s genius. That’s up to me to explain. But they’ve got there. By approaching the problem with fresh, open minds. By worrying less about the practicalities and more about ‘What’s going to be cool?’
But youthful thinking isn’t just a privilege of the young. Some of the most successful creatives in our business blossom late in life because they stay young in mind and approach.
And it’s the same with agencies. Young, exciting, creative hot shops can grow into just as exciting big businesses if they retain that hot shop mentality. It’s what John Bartle describes as ‘immaturing with age’.
7. Be inspired.
Be a sponge. Absorb as much creativity as possible. Watch films. Listen to music. Feast on art and design and architecture and fashion and everything. Go to sites. Interact. Chat. Game. Explore. Figure out why you like something. But don’t copy it. If you copy something because its original then your work won’t be. Instead copy its ambition. Be inspired by its creator. I go through periods of time when I’m bored with everything in the whole world and then suddenly I’ll see or hear or read something and it’s like I’ve been woken from a coma. That’s when I want to run off and do something great.
8. Inspire others.
At some point you might make the leap up into creative directing. This tends to be how career paths are defined in our industry. CDing is about making the work better, but there’s more to it than this. If you want to be a good CD you’ve got to inspire people. Get creatives excited about a creative opportunity or an idea. Get clients excited in your presentation of that idea. And if you’ve got to make a total fool of yourself singing, dancing and doing duck noises then that, I’m afraid, is showbiz.
9. Get everyone on board.
Some creative people get described as ‘Difficult to work with’. This usually means that they’re so obsessed with delivering a great piece of work they’re inconsiderate to anyone that gets in the way. In truth it does take a degree of creative belligerence to make an idea perfect. Woody Allen always says that his films are at their most perfect in screenplay form, and that the production of them is just an exercise in protecting the original vision. Fine. But in our business we’re not about creating art we’re about selling and building brands, a process that involves many stakeholders, and it usually takes more than one brilliant person to get a brilliant idea over the line. So my way of working goes like this; if everyone in the room, from the creatives to the client, is given a sense of personal ownership of an idea then the final work will be better as a result. This isn’t about democracy. It’s about mutual respect and a process that allows everyone to do what they do best. Including the creatives. And you know what? The more you listen to and respect people the more they’ll let you be a stubborn git.
10. Enjoy yourself.
This industry has changed beyond recognition since I joined it. The creative canvass we paint on is now bigger than ever. The age of interruption has been replaced by the age of engagement as brands have better conversations with consumers across multiple media platforms. Technology continues to liberate creativity. There is a feeling that anything is possible. So take advantage of the opportunities afforded to you. Enjoy being creative. Enjoy playing, exploring, being curious, being inventive, being original. Really. It’s not a bad life.