6 Principles for Starting New Creative Endeavors
Last month, a conference that I had been developing for more than a year finally materialized. It was the MAGNET Sub 10 Seminar, created for marketers who have been in the industry for ten or fewer years. Over two days, I and other MAGNET members in that position learned from agency presidents and other professionals about setting ourselves up for strong careers.
Since this was my first time on the planning end of a conference, it was kind of surreal to see the final result. The presenters shared a lot of great advice, and all of the attendees seemed to enjoy the whole seminar. And now that I can reflect on both the conference and its planning process, a few things stick out as important principles to remember when starting any new creative endeavor.
1. Have a Clear Vision
From the earliest days of the Sub 10 talent development group, we had tossed around the idea of a conference. Other things like agency cultural exchanges and periodic check-ins happened, but the conference was never a high priority. We barely talked about it after the group got off the ground.
That changed after I attended one of MAGNET’s creative seminars last year. It was great to meet other network members, see the work they were doing, and talk about the creative side of marketing. I knew I wanted to do the same thing with the Sub 10 group. With that vision, I had something concrete to work towards and share with the group.
Whether you’re planning a conference, starting a business, or writing a book, vision is important. On the first day of the seminar, one of our speakers talked about the importance of purpose. He described it as an integral element of both business and in your personal life. It doesn’t mean you have everything figured out, but it does paint a clear idea of what success looks like.
I think that vision and purpose both serve the same goal — inspiring people to strive for something bigger than themselves. If your project requires a team effort, a clear vision plants a flag for everyone to rally around. It’s the big red X on a map that keeps you from blindly charting a course. Having a vision for your creative endeavor, whether small or big, gives shape to the final result and provides motivation to see it through.
2. Keep the Process Fluid
This was one of the tougher lessons for me to learn. Despite being in a creative industry, I tend to think and plan very linearly. So when I started working on the conference with our network director, I expected the planning process to follow a clear path of progression. For example, when we tidied up the schedule early in the process, I thought it would be law.
Hoo boy was I wrong. That schedule we worked on was just the draft number one (of dozens). It didn't account for speakers’ own schedules, programming changes, and other complications that arose. It was tough, but I quickly realized putting on a successful seminar meant trusting the confusion would be resolved by the time our first speaker stood up to present.
In the same vein, our strategic thinking presenter encouraged us to question the research-then-strategy-then-media-then-creative process when working on future marketing campaigns. He suggested the best work results when those elements mingle, rub against, and inform one another. Obviously different stages of the process emphasize certain aspects, but don’t go into a big project expecting every stage to neatly line up.
By keeping the process fluid, you take a proactive stance against the stress of complications. It leaves room for you to make course corrections and maybe even take advantage of unexpected opportunities when they arise. I’m sure some people are better at this than others (though that probably goes for all of these suggestions), but it’s a good thing to consciously keep in mind when you’re first starting out.
3. Know Your Audience
The marketer’s mantra. Anyone who fails to understand their audience is sure to die a quick, but nonetheless painful death. That’s why one of the first things we did when planning this conference was reach out to other Sub 10-ers and ask what they’d like to get out of the event.
It was awesome. Not only was this a good excuse to connect with many of the people who would be at the conference, but it also spurred ideas that wouldn't have occurred to me if I had planned it alone. Talking with them helped both with drumming up excitement for the seminar and also honing the vision. If we hadn't taken the time get their input, I doubt the event would've gone as well as it did.
One of our speakers talked about giving presentations, and stressed the importance of knowing your audience. If you want to get your message across, you need to understand who you’re presenting to and what expectations they have. If you don’t, don’t be surprised if your presentation falls on deaf ears.
In the same way, it’s important to know your audience when starting a creative endeavor. Even if your audience is just yourself, it will help answer questions that arise as you get closer to shipping. By knowing who they are, what they care about, and how to push them to take action, you have a much better chance of creating something that resonates with them.
4. Break From Tradition
Tradition has its place, but don’t let it become a hindrance to what you want to achieve. Admittedly, the Sub 10 seminar wasn't the best example of this principle. The conference looked very similar to other MAGNET conferences, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
But I did go a conference last summer that exemplified this idea perfectly. It was a conference for young adults, and it featured a 5K as its Saturday morning activity. I’m not a runner, but I still thought it was awesome. It was refreshing to take a break from the speakers, get outside, and just walk with some of the other attendees for a “session.”
Back to the Sub 10 conference, there was one attendee who made an offhand remark about doing yoga at the beginning of each day to help people wake up. I think that’s a great idea. I've never heard of doing yoga at a conference before, but why not take a few minutes each morning to help attendees focus and get ready for the day?
Breaking from tradition helps keep things fresh. In your context, it may mean stepping outside of the medium’s conventions, or possibly breaking a tradition of your own. Whatever the case, it’s a worthwhile exercise to question the status quo and try something that hasn't been done before. It just may be the angle that makes your next project stand out from the rest.
5. Learn from and/or study the best
All of that “divorce tradition” stuff said, don’t go into things blind. In putting this conference together, I worked closely with our network’s executive director and vice president of seminars. They helped me think through the vision and structure of the conference and connect with speakers.
I attribute their guidance as the reason things went so smoothly. If it hadn't been for them, I’d probably still be trying to organize the thing. I was also able to take some ideas from the creative seminar I attended the year before and apply them to this one. And if you think about it, the whole point of a conference is structured around this principle.
Case in point, one session featured a panel with partners from five different agencies. They talked about how they got started in the business and shared some advice about getting our careers off to a strong start. It was awesome to hear their perspectives and ask about their industry experiences in a relaxed, casual setting. It was definitely one of the most appreciated sessions of the conference.
Sometimes you’ll be able to learn directly from the best, sometimes you’ll have to study them from afar. I was fortunate enough to get a lot of personal guidance for this project, but these days you can find anything you want to know with just a search. Taking time to learn from the best can help you save time and minimize common mistakes, not to mention offer some inspiration for your own creative endeavor.
6. Roll with the punches
No matter how much you try to limit complications, something’s going to go wrong. In my case of planning the conference, some speakers had to cancel, some sessions had to be shortened, and frankly I was unprepared for my role at the conference itself. I wasn't very good at staying on top of the schedule and wasn't the best emcee either.
But what’s important is that everyone had a good time, and I learned a few new things through the experience. People who know me know I don’t deal well with changing plans, but early in the process I decided to not let small things get to me. There were a few moments when I let my anxiety get the best of me, but for the most part this attitude helped me stay calm.
This was why I found a short presentation on learning from mistakes so relevant. Our speaker talked about how the best way to deal with mistakes is to know your response ahead of time. Instead of reacting right away, it’s usually better to take some time and consider the best response. How you deal with obstacles ultimately makes a much bigger impact than the obstacles themselves.
Very few creative endeavors go off without a hitch. Internally, you may lose motivation, get a creative block, or question your ability. Externally, there may be a loss of work, a miscommunication, or an unavoidable delay. When those happen (not if), don’t dwell on them for long. Roll with the punches and use that momentum to keep moving toward your goal.
BONUS: Have fun.
After the conference, a coworker and I went to an awesome St. Louis attraction called the City Museum. The website describes it as “an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.” I describe it as The Jungle for adults. You can’t go wrong with a place with a ten-story slide.
To be clear, the conference was a great experience and really not that stressful. But as conference chair, I ended up talking way more than any 25-year-old introverted copywriter with a speech impediment should. So on Friday night I was really happy to throw off my marketing hat and revert to a hyperactive 6-year-old.
Now, if you’re starting a new creative endeavor, it should absolutely be something that you enjoy. But a time will come when you don’t enjoy it. It will feel like a really bad, uninspired metaphor. When that time comes, take a break. Have fun. Get away and recharge your batteries. Bonus points if you do something active like going for a run or wrestling bears. Your sanity will thank you.
If you’re wondering, yes, there will be another Sub 10 seminar. But I won’t be the conference chair. I’ll be functioning in more of an advisory role — once again something I don’t have much experience with. But considering how well the last endeavor went and how much I learned, I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes.
Beginning a new creative project is imagination, excitement, and trepidation all wrapped up in a giant ball of potential. And while I believe laying out rules for creativity is contradictory, I do think these principles can help inform the process. By keeping them in mind, we can set up our projects for a strong beginning and ending.