An Uptight Atmosphere Can Hinder the Creative Process

Relax and Let the Ideas Flow

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Derek Walker
Derek Walker
"What the hell is this?!!" screamed the CEO of an agency I once worked for. He was standing over the antique pool table in the creative area that some art directors had converted to a review table for a huge project we were working on.

Heads popped out of cubes to see what he was talking about.

"What is this crap?!" (He used another four-lettered word.) He continued looking down at the work on the pool table. "Everyone get out here. Now."

Everyone hurried around the table, including our creative director. We stood there silently as he glared down at the pool table covered in work. No one said a word -- we had never heard or seen him this angry. A big man, a former college football player, he was imposing.

"Someone explain this crap to me! What in the world am I looking at?! All the money and time we've spent and you... you dare to do this! Get this off my pool table, and never use it for this again! Now, pick up a damn pool cue and use this table for what it is meant for! And someone better drink that damn beer in the cooler too!"

Folks stood there stunned, not knowing what to do. My art director partner and I grabbed our favorite cues as others started to clear the table. My art director shot a quick glance at a couple of the art directors working to clear the pool table of the work. Our work wasn't on the table; it never was. This using the pool table for a staging area was a power struggle in the creative department between those who believed that we should not be wasting our time playing pool and those who had no problem with the practice. Want to guess which camp I was in?

Neither camp involved had a member of management on its side, so this struggle had been going on covertly for the last few days. Nothing was ever said, but work would appear on the table, and work would be moved. People would make comments when others were playing pool or post little signs asking for quiet -- all of which only served to intensify things.

As we racked for the first game, some folks sat around and started to crack open the beers that the agency provided in a small refrigerator near the pool table, and still others quietly made their way back to their cubes.

"Where the [fudge] are you going?!" boomed our CEO's voice. "What is wrong with you people? Did you not hear me. Relax."

Both my art director and I stood up, realizing that he was not done, and we were partially shocked by the command to relax. Everyone was shocked.

"You've been churning and burning non-stop on this project and all your other assignments for how long? What? Eight or nine days? Most of you've been here when I get in the morning, and are still here when I leave in the evening this whole time. This isn't a bowel movement (again, not the term he used); you can't sit here and force it out! Well, you can but you end up with the same thing... crap (another substitution). The work isn't any better by you sitting here trying to force it, as a matter of fact, it is worse! Look at it! Just, look at it!" he said, pointing at the pile of work on the other table.

My art director and I went back to playing, we didn't need to look at the work. We had been complaining about it for days. No one really looked, we all knew that the ideas weren't our best. But that was why we were trying so hard-- the ideas would not come.

After a few more games, some more beers and trash talking, one of the other art directors turned to my art director and jokingly said, "What if we lit the logo on fire?"

Everyone stopped and burst out laughing, knowing how in love with the logo the client was.

The dam burst. A flood of crazy and silly ideas came flowing forth. We were talking about things we knew would give the client a heart attack but the consumer would love. And as we laughed and played, a campaign was born that was unlike anything this client had ever done. But it resulted in a double-digit increase in sales, a reduction in turnover in the stores and improved customer satisfaction -- and a couple of awards.

Let me be clear. It was not the alcohol or the pool table. It was the atmosphere, the collaboration, the removing of the collective stick from up our butts that allowed the creative to flow.

We had gotten in our own way. Creative is a fickle mistress, she will not be rushed or forced, she will not answer simply because you or I call.

A few months after the campaign, we learned that the CEO's tirade was planned between him and our creative director. They had seen that we were struggling, and devised this plan to snap us out of the vicious cycle we had gotten ourselves into -- the harder we tried, the worse the work got, the worse the work got, the harder we tried.

It's odd how you can't see that you're trapped, but we couldn't. All we could see was how important this project was to the client and the agency. (That's right, creatives actually thought about something other than winning awards. But don't tell anyone.) Anyway, we tried to work ourselves through the problem, and the work suffered; the first group of ideas had all the facts but none of the humanity. Our leaders saw this and acted.

I'm not saying this is the perfect approach or that everyone should use it. I am saying that you cannot force a great concept to appear; no amount of sitting and staring at a computer screen is going to produce the solutions we are charged with creating. And yet, in agency after agency, people sit in their office or cubicle or desk heads down, trying to force the creative, and the work bears this out.

The mind does not work that way.

Want to produce better work? Step back and look at the conditions under which your current work is being produced. It isn't always the client's fault that the work sucketh. Agencies don't have to be playgrounds, but they do need to be relaxed enough for ideas to be born. There needs to be an openness to new and different. Can creative solutions germinate and flourish in the field that you've provided or is the ground too hard and dry for anything to take root?

Say what you want, but the answer is in the work.

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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