Respect the Process: A Lesson on Creativity From My Dad's Grill

Finished Product May Look Easy, but It Takes Time, Effort and Skill

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My dad can cook some ribs (for all you uneducated in the way of the smoke, that is pork ribs). Now, I'm not claiming his ribs are the greatest in the world, but he was the go-to guy for most neighborhood and church functions.

(OK, for all you experts out there: I grew up using grilling and barbecuing interchangeably. I know there is a difference, but that 's how we were raised. Just go with it, Ken Wheaton.)

Anyway, my dad's ribs started three or four days before the fire was ever lit. He'd go to the butcher and select his slabs, carefully examining them for the perfect amount of meat and fat -- not too much or too little. After he'd found the right ones, he would fix up his mixture of wet and dry items (sorry, only Walkers are allowed to know the mix) and pour it over the slabs of ribs, covering them completely. Into the refrigerator they'd go for the next few days. The slabs were turned regularly to insure complete seasoning.

Meanwhile, we boys chopped the dry wood, which my father had selected, into chunks. He used a mixture of a smoky wood and a fruit-tree wood for extra flavor. This mixture of wood varied depending on the taste he was going after -- my dad tried to flavor it to match the eaters' taste if he knew them well enough. About a day before the fire was lit, he soaked a portion of the wood in water, because it smoked better when wet.

By then, the grill had been inspected to make sure it was clean and seasoned. All the tools and utensils were in place. After all that was done, my dad built his "starter fire." He normally started it late the night before with huge pieces of wood that would burn throughout the night, and by morning the fire was nothing but smoldering coals and ash.

Early the next morning, my dad was awake, sitting in the back yard watching his cooking fire going. He'd place a piece of dry wood and a piece of wet wood on the fire to see how quickly they'd burn and how hot the fire would get. Once he was sure of how the wood would to burn, he'd place the ribs on the fire in a pattern only he understood, add some more wood and let the smoke do its job.

My father likes to cook his ribs slow, so he'd sit there for hours managing the fire, inspecting the ribs and gauging the temperature. Every now and then he sprinkled the mixture that he marinated the meat in over the ribs to keep them moist.

Later that day or even the next day, the ribs were eaten. To those eating them, it seemed pretty quick and easy -- buy the meat, season it, cook it and eat it. But to my dad and all the young men watching and learning, it was anything but simple or easy.

Every now and then, one of his friends or someone's husband "volunteered" to help with the grilling but once the person discovered how much went into it, he would find something else he had to do. A few brave souls tried to show my dad how he could do it quicker or cheaper, but in side-by -side taste test the differences were really noticeable.

~ ~ ~

A commenter to my previous post, Jack Jones, got me to thinking about this with our exchange about selling. His point about respecting the creative process was huge and much needed.

The creative process is a lot like grilling or barbecuing: To those consuming the end product, advertising seems quick and easy. To those engaged in the actual creation, it starts long before the consumption, and requires a lot more work and thought than many realize.

It takes time and effort to do properly.

Yes, there are shortcuts you can take but, just as in grilling, the final product won't be as good. It may not ruin the experience completely, but it will be noticeable, the difference between "OK" and "great."

This is where the business end of advertising slams headlong into the creative side of advertising, where the need to get things done as fast as possible comes into direct conflict with taking the time to create work that is good.

This isn't about winning awards or indulging the artist in us. (It is sad that I have to inject that .) It is about producing the best work possible to deliver the best results. I don't believe advertising has to be creative "or" effective -- it can and should be both.

This lack of respect is an internal issue for advertising. It is primarily our fault. Yes, clients demanded shorter deadlines and faster turnarounds, but we're the ones who acquiesce.

It was us who marginalized the creative process and creative talent that it takes to get the job done. We didn't carefully select the best cuts of meat nor were we willing to go with well-seasoned meat; instead we settled for lower price and less seasoned cuts.

It was us who displayed a lack of respect for the creative process, who failed to stress to clients that crafting messages and executions that deliver results takes time and effort. We didn't marinate the meat.

It was us who failed to stress the importance of providing creatives with the time to craft a strong message; it was us who championed research but failed to push for the time to properly conduct it. We figured we could do it faster and still get the same great taste.

Yes, the clients pushed, but we caved too easily.

I'm neither a fool nor naive. I know full well that standing up to clients will cause plenty of pain for agencies. But look at what not standing up has cost us. Still, there are agencies holding onto their standards and defending the process -- just not enough of us.

People are consuming what we've prepared, and they are noticing that it isn't as good as it used to be or what they are used to.

Yes, our grills are newer and shiny with all types of advanced gadgets and tools. But when it is all said and done, it comes down to how well it tastes and whether anyone is willing to swallow it.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising based in Columbia, S.C.
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