All Blocked Up

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Howie Cohen had no idea. Literally. It was 1980, and Cohen, then a creative director at Wells Rich Greene, had a mission: to get consumers to think of Jack in the Box as more than just a fast-food joint for the kiddies. "At the time, Jack in the Box was kind of a joke, a poor man's McDonald's," recalls Cohen. "People used to call it Gag in the Bag. It became evident that we needed to go beyond just introducing sandwiches to say `We've changed, the quality's better, the taste is better.' And we had to do it in a dramatic way."

As advertising goes, this was a pretty cool assignment. Only problem was, Cohen was postively stuck. Stumped. Try as he might, inspiration just would not strike. And it certainly wasn't for lack of experience. He'd started his career on the revered Volkswagen account at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the 1960s. In 1972, while at Wells, he won two Clios for the hugely successful Alka Seltzer lines: "Try it, you'll like it" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Everyone expected great things from Howie Cohen. The pressure was on. It was always on.

But Cohen had The Block - creativity block, that is - and he had it bad. "I thought we were going to lose the account," he says. "A lot of people were going to get fired. My own job was in jeopardy."

Each creative has his own way of fighting The Block: some take a walk, some take a shower, some take a nap. And Cohen? Cohen took a scotch, his preferred form of therapy. "It's cheaper and it's always telling you good things," he says, only half-jokingly.

It was at 3 a.m. when, after a dose of Dewar's, Cohen finally, finally had his Eureka moment. "We have to blow this sucker up!" he thought. "We have to blow up the Jack in the Box clown because the clown symbolized the childlike non-seriousness." And so, in a commercial that was a hit with both client and audience, Cohen literally exploded the Jack in the Box clown. "I went from Dewar's scotch to fine champagne," says Cohen, who is now chief creative officer at the Phelps Group, a marketing communications agency in Los Angeles. He swears he doesn't necessarily look to a bottle for inspiration: strenuous workouts and writing exercises are also in his repertoire.

Performance anxieties

Extraordinary deadline and performance anxieties plague even the most tenured advertising creatives. Of course, their obligation to deliver brilliant idea after brilliant idea is usually very well compensated; in fact, aside from CEOs, creative directors are the highest paid ad agency employees, according to a recent Ad Age survey. But the fat paycheck does nothing to keep the terror of the white page at bay.

Dr. Sandra Foster has heard it all: "I am empty of ideas," "I feel dried up and no longer creative," "I don't trust my own creative process," "I don't have `it' anymore." As a performance enhancement psychologist in San Francisco, Foster is a block buster, helping her patients - graphic designers, art directors, copywriters, and creative directors - overcome their creative blocks. "There's this sense of having a gift or talent that has to be nurtured and worked with and can sometimes be very volatile or fragile," she says. "Often the concern is `I may not be able to get my talent to operate on command."'

At times, that is certainly true of Tom Rector, a copywriter at the Phelps Group, whose biggest fear is being unable to perform at his best when it counts the most. "If you get a client that will let you do something great or has a great product, you perceive it as a huge opportunity," he says. "That's a whole different ball game. You're not in the third inning and the score is meaningless. It's the ninth inning, two outs, bases loaded. You want to walk up to that plate and hit that home run. That's when you feel the block the most."

Rector attends weekly stress management therapy meetings where he shares his block issues with other creative professionals. He also participates in his agency's Brain Bangers Ball, a weekly agency-wide `show and tell,' during which staff members present works in progress and receive criticism from colleagues. Unfortunately, many creatives aren't open to such candid feedback, says Rector. "A lot of creative people don't want to present their stuff until they've evolved it themselves. They are very self-obsessed. It's tough. Sometimes you go up there and bomb, but you're gonna have to put yourself out there sooner or later."

And getting input from others can keep the spark going, says Joe Keefe, executive producer and "monsignor of comedy," at Second City Communications in Chicago. His company, a subsidiary of the well-known improvisation troupe, is hired by businesses, including advertising agencies, to help refuel creativity and teamwork in the workplace. "One of the most important assets you can have when trying to re-energize yourself is a team or support group," believes Keefe. "Isolation can really inhibit creativity." Second City prescribes improvisation, imagery and team sport games. "The first thing we emphasize is the concept of play," Keefe says. "So many people in the creative business move toward logic instead of emotion. Play brings them back to emotion." In one game, teams are asked to create, pitch and sell a product that can't be sold, like opaque glasses or a car with no wheels. "We're trying to stimulate their senses of humor, to tease each other, have fun with things again," says Keefe. "So many times, looking at something differently can affect your work so profoundly and personally."

Pollinating the grid

Looking at things differently certainly unclogged Dan Hansen's creativity blockage. The VP-creative director at ad shop Folio Z in Atlanta says that since he began using a technique called "cross-pollination" 10 years ago, he hasn't had a single block. Cross-pollination works like this: Draw a grid. Along the horizontal axis, list concepts related to the product. On the vertical, list unrelated, even opposite, concepts. The challenge is to fill each square in the grid with a single visual that represents each of the conflicting pairs. "It's great for copy because it's always easier to write from a relevant visual," says Hansen. "Cross-pollination takes you down roads you might not normally travel if you're stuck thinking linearly."

But blocks can be eliminated even before the concept-generating process if there is a clear understanding of sales strategy, says Hansen. He says many of the blocks he sees in young creatives result from misinterpreting client objectives. It's a lesson he learned the hard way when he and a former partner, Joe Gigliotti, got stumped developing an ad for a high-tech car crash wall for Wiley Laboratories. "The problem was we hadn't figured out what we were trying to say," says Hansen, with 20/20 hindsight. "We thought we were concepting, when in fact, we were trying to figure out what the sales strategy was and we didn't know it." Hansen says he's considered leaving the business. "It was so frustrating. I remember days when we'd be up till 2 a.m., getting nowhere."

Hansen stuck it out, but Gigliotti finally gave up on agency life. The pressure to please his higher-ups and meet unrelenting deadlines stifled him. "The faster you are forced to think, the worse the work is," he says. "I don't know anybody in the business who is really happy. The guy I served under was making about $150,000 and was a constant nervous wreck. My former colleagues who are now sitting at or near the top of the agency are working around the clock. They have the golden handcuffs: making too much money to quit. My sanity was worth much more to me." Today, Gigliotti still writes copy, but as a freelancer he is able to choose assignments and work flexible hours, without the bureaucratic headaches.

Slowing down is the answer, says Joey Reiman, a former adman whose latest book is entitled Business at the Speed of Molasses. He says the industry needs to recognize that good ideas need time to mature. "Speed is no friend of originality," says Reiman, the founder of Brighthouse, an `ideation' company in Atlanta, where staffers are paid to literally think for a living. Reiman says he sells his big branding and image ideas to companies like Coca-Cola and Home Depot for over a half million dollars each.

Reiman doesn't believe in blocks. "I try to envision myself as a vessel, where stuff is coming through me as opposed to out of me," he says. "If writers consider themselves a vessel, then their writing ability is unlimited. If they consider themselves the source, they will run out of it. There has to be a source greater than oneself in order to be_prolific."

Prayer helped locate that source for Scott Denison, president and creative director of Lightstream, an advertising and design firm in Knoxville. He encountered The Block when developing a logo for the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. "I got up and went to church," he says. "Afterwards, I came into the office and wham, there it was. The execution came out real graceful and peaceful."(continued)

Regular meditation also keeps Ernest Sparacin, an independent ad designer from Dallas, from feeling overcome by blocks. He's attended yoga classes weekly for the past five years. "It really soothes the savage beast in me," he says. "It calms all those voices in my head."

Susan Borkin, a psychotherapist in Los Altos, Calif., actually recommends having conversations with The Block, even, um, writing it a letter. "I know it sounds demented, but it really can be powerful," says Borkin. "It might tell you `I need more downtime' or `Stop pressuring me.' If you can understand what's holding you back, you can move past it."

Sparacin takes that exercise a step further. "I become the block," he says. After several unproductive days trying to design a brochure for an air conditioning and heating company, he put on one of the technician's uniforms. "I went up in the attic - it must have been 150 degrees up there - and helped the technician clean the furnace," Sparacin says. "I literally became the block. After that I was able to put the whole brochure together in a snap."

But becoming one with The Block isn't always so simple. Most blocks have to do with an internalized fear, says Borkin. Fear of failing, fear of inadequacy, even fear of succeeding ("If I do too well, I'll have to keep performing at that level") can all impede creativity. When those fears become deeply entrenched in one's psyche, some brain rewiring may be required. "Fears are often connected to specific events in the past," Borkin explains. "We're all born with a blank screen, so every event in our life has an imprint. Some things are neutral, some are positive and some are negative. It's the negative ones that become the blocks." She says that any disappointment in the past - being laughed at during a school presentation, being criticized by a professor, etc. - can cause lasting blocks in the present.

Hand-eye coordination

Borkin uses a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EMDR. It is a procedure traditionally used with trauma patients, during which a person's deep-rooted negative beliefs are literally erased and then replaced with desired positive beliefs. The complicated, hour-and-a-half-long process usually has to be repeated many times over several months. In the simplest terms, the patient visualizes a past event during which he felt a severe block. Then the therapist, simulating rapid eye movement, moves her hand quickly in front of the patient's face while he focuses on his negative `target picture.' Eventually, the same is done with a positive image. "Most people, after a few sessions, start to get a different perspective because they are literally disconnecting the old picture and the old belief system, and they are left with a neutral thing," says Borkin. "Then we install the positive belief, and after a while that becomes the new belief."

Lynn Kennedy, a psychotherapist from San Jose, Calif., teaches "anchoring," a sort of brain retraining technique that helps people control their creativity. She asks her patients to recall what it feels like to be creatively `on' or `in the flow,' and then has them choose a physical or auditory signal - such as tugging on one's ear or listening to a certain piece of music - to mark that state of being. Every time the person is creatively `on,' he'll tug his ear or play the song. Eventually, associations are created and that sense of `being on' can be summoned at will. Kennedy, who is also trained in hypnotherapy, teaches forms of self-hypnosis as well. With a process called `visualizations and affirmations,' a patient imagines specific pictures of his desired state (visualizing) or verbalizes positive statements (affirming), which he repeats over and over again to himself. These positive suggestions eventually become part of his belief system, especially when repeated while in a natural hypnotic trance, such as during the time immediately prior to sleep.

Maybe this gets a little precious and too pop-psychological for some. Sometimes, it works to just grit your teeth, hope for the best, and plunge ahead. "Advertising is creativity on demand," rationalizes Matt Savage, creative director at Omnicom's Integer Dallas. "It's a choice of lifestyle. People are commissioning you to do work. You can't work only when the muse hits you. If you want to make a living at it, you're always going to owe somebody something, deadline-wise. That's the price of admission."

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