We Have Creativity All Wrong.

Written By on August 26, 2015

When you think of a creative, you most likely think of a mad-scientist without the science part. You think of someone who is messy, unorganized, and maybe even uninspired unless they receive a visit from a muse. You think of right-brained talent that needs to be managed, supervised, and directed by left-brain peers. Angst-ridden rock stars, neurotic painters, and malcontented writers are the poster children of creativity and are celebrated for their idiosyncrasies and madness as much as they are for their talent. If all that creativity wasn’t managed by someone, the theory goes, records wouldn’t be made, art wouldn’t be hung, and novels would succumb to the blank page.

In the advertising world, this notion of the irresponsible creative runs rampant is is perpetrated not just by the account and agency managers it benefits, but also unfortunately by the creatives themselves.

This is Not THE Creative Process. This is a Bad Creative Process.


A lot of young creatives feel like they have to look and act the part of a creative and spend as much time doing that – than working on their craft. You grow your beard. Wear you hoodie. Come in late. Act surly. And pretend that deadlines don’t mean anything. “You’re creative!” Not only is this accepted to some degree, it’s celebrated. So what’s wrong with this? By accepting the irresponsible, disorganized and illogical labels of others we have relegated ourselves to the children’s table of business. Drinking out of sippy cups and having to be quiet while the adults (planners, accountants, executives, strategists, etc.) discuss the serious matters of the day.

When I started one job in my past, I started with a small team of two. (Yes, only 2.)  One creative was a competent, detail-oriented workhorse. The other was a surly, lazy, and disorganized employee. Both were talented and capable of great work. But only one was going to fit in the department I was building. My vision for the creative team was for it to be the most prepared, most accountable, most organized, most responsible and most strategic department in the building. And over three years, that was definitely the case by any measure. It made hiring significantly more difficult on the front-end, but we eventually had a robust team of creatives that bucked the traditional labels while producing solid marketing solutions. The person that more closely fit the rule-breaking, anti-social creative, had to go. (And we’ll come back to rule-breaking later. We do like breaking rules.)

I think it’s time we throw out the right brain vs left brain philosophy. It does nothing but put people in silos, and positions creatives as lacking logic, mathematical skills, and reasoning. It also gives far too much power to account managers and other creative handlers. Yes, creatives are different kinds of people and it’s this difference that makes us valuable. However, the best creatives have this talent in addition to—not in place of—the other attributes normally assigned to more business-minded professionals. That’s the magical part. As a matter of fact, this combination is what makes the best creatives good at what they do. This is great news for creatives. Great news for clients who want to work directly with the talent in an organization. Not so great news for all those students majoring in account management or for those agencies that have more account people than people creating the work. (And if you want to know how I’d select an agency if were a client – this would be the first measuring stick. There must be significantly more doers than managers and more doers that manage. It would easily eliminate most shops.)

Here’s a snapshot of the characteristics these new creatives demonstrate. Consider it a check-list for creatives that want to be taken more seriously, paid more appropriately, and have a seat at the big table.

This is What Creativity is About:

  1. Homework. The best creatives are the most prepared people in the room. They know the problem, the business, the people and the assignment better than anyone.
  2. Organization. Bad creatives procrastinate. Good creatives get organized, gather information, ask questions and start working immediately. They know this gives them time for the ‘ah-ha’ moment. Anyone who things their best ideas come under pressure at the end are kidding themselves and rationalizing bad habits.You can’t always control when they happen, but you can give them as much time as possible to appear. Unless you truly are more gifted than anyone I’ve ever met. My favorite creatives are the obsessive type that organize server folders, font directories and have to have a clean office before they make a mess out of the day.
  3. Awareness. Gone are the days when you can sit in a meeting and not contribute. Great creatives are active, engaged, and know how to convince people of what direction to take. You may not even recognize them as creatives in a meeting, because they take control with confidence.
  4. Technical prowess. Creatives are known for coloring outside the lines. But in truth, they need to be excruciatingly technical and detail-oriented when setting type, putting together presentations, working with developers, and doing the rest of their job functions. The color within the lines better than anyone. They understand technology, they embrace it, they get how it impacts their creative work and then leverage it to the fullest. Pixel-perfect, fastidious, and exacting. That’s creativity applied with care and passion and not the reckless abandon it is more often associated.
  5. Rule-breaking, yes. Here’s one that is a more traditional descriptor of a creative, and it’s as true as ever. But long gone are the days where you can just break the rules and expect people to go with it. You have to be a consensus builder and actually build support for all the rules that you are breaking. You can’t be a one person (or one team) wrecking ball. You have to have grassroots (and client) support and its most often the creative’s job to get that support or watch their great idea die. Even better when you can get others to break the rule for you.
  6. Talent but active talent. An obvious one, but the most misunderstood. We’re talking active talent. Talent that is constantly taking big swings, trying new things, learning new skills. Passive talent, where the right opportunity has to miraculously walk by for it to work, doesn’t make for a good business model. Active talent are the people you want to find, hire, mentor and put on projects. I’ll take prolific over the occasional eureka, thank you very much. Dozens of consistent home-runs over the potential of a rare grand slam.
  7. Ideas. Emphasis on the plural. This is the one that non-creative people use as a way of getting into the creative process. They have an idea and that’s all they know about creativity. The idea is usually singular. They expect that idea to be loved and appreciated. They fall in love with it and can’t see the flaws, risks, or vulnerabilities of that idea. They have no other ideas with which to compare and contrast it. If you know a non-creative type who is fond of saying, “Everyone is creative!”. Tell them you hate their idea. And explain to them that being creative isn’t about having an idea, it’s about having hundreds of ideas and slaving through them all, being realistic with them all, and killing them all until one is left standing. When you hate their idea, they’ll either quickly fall out of love with being creative. Or prove their creativity. But nobody sees the hard work that goes into being an ‘idea person’ and we can do better about sharing that process and getting more appreciation for what goes on behind the ‘ah-ha!’ moment. Creativity is work, no doubt about it.
  8. Lifestyle. The best creatives I know just don’t work creatively, they live creatively too. Divergent thinking is a dominant part of their life. They question things, study things, and are curious about everything. They are more interesting people and know more about more things.

This list doesn’t paint the typical picture of a creative, does it? I find it odd that most organizations that pride themselves on creativity usually subjugate creatives under managers and executives who are more or less paper pushers or bean counters. (The agency world is full of this.) These managers are most often working in an industry or creative realm in which they do not fully understand but try so desperately to manage. It shouldn’t work and it doesn’t as well as it could. The truth of it is-creatives are the ones to blame. We have given our power away. If we want to gain more respect, have more control, and be in leadership positions in our fields; we have to shed the out-dated creative stereotypes and start claiming what is rightfully ours.

And here’s the irony. It’s a lot more fun this way.