Originally published January 2019
There’s an old David Ogilvy quote that resonated with me as I was perusing a few muses between work or whatever else I was doing at the time. “Creativity and innovation function best in an atmosphere of fun and foment. Creativity hardly functions at all in an atmosphere of politics and fear.” I couldn’t think of anything else that day after I read this. I still can’t think of anything else.
Ogilvy’s legacy as a monument of advertising forefathers, largely regarded as the original Mad Man, is awash with quotes you’d stitch on a pillow to throw on your daydream couch (I have one, doesn’t everyone?) to rest one’s head on for deep thinking, incessant worrying, and vision-casting. Surely those perennial bits of wisdom for creative work will perform their own osmosis and give us remarkable ideas with minimal effort toward forming our own. This is usually the way quotes from famous people are supposed to work, from David Ogilvy or otherwise; we fixate on them and claim them as our own battle cries, at least the ones that strike deep chords with us and stop us in our tracks.
The problem here is that there’s also an important element of fear that creatives (Ogilvy included) must embrace. It’s a dance between the ways we define fear– a reactionary emotion to eminent or perceived danger, or, as a less perilous version, awareness where there’s some likelihood of failure lurking as a result of your efforts. That risk of failure is healthy, in the same way that some forms of stress can be healthy (eustress vs. distress). This is the atmosphere of “fun and foment” that the original quote relates to; let’s stir things up, make things unpredictable, and throw a wrench of chaos into the moment in hopes that it’ll produce something unexpected, something unique, something brilliant. But failure is still a possibility in those moments … and that’s okay!
The thrill of danger aside, there must be an unmistakable element of true, childlike fun for creatives to do what they do best. In fact, they don’t really have to be self-professed “creatives” at all … every human has the capacity for creativity. Every single one of us has an activity that we’ve engaged with since childhood that elicits play –and yeah, we tend grow out of some of those playful habits. But they’re still there, waiting to be leveraged for creativity. They have to be there.
Ever since the launch of this studio, I’ve lead with the promise to create uncommon artistic expressions for brands and the way they communicate — all with the comforting (and yes, presumptive) assumption that the target audience, medium, application, and strategy is largely inconsequential. Why? Because the balance between art and advertising, at least the way I’ve always identified “art”, closely resembles our lifelong relationship with states of play. Irreverence, comedy, surprise, make-believe, role playing, intrigue, curiosity … these are all elements that make for a great state of play. My estimation: they also make for remarkable ways for brands to communicate, differentiate themselves, and grow their audiences.
Remember how we used to play as kids? We fed off of our environment (playground, classroom, living room, back yard, etc.) and combined it with the knowledge we picked up recently, whether it was watching a cartoon that morning or remembering a lesson from school the previous week. We mimic the roles we see adults engaging in, exaggerate the details we observe around our world (mostly with incorrect understanding), and create scenarios that fit within certain constructs such as competition and cooperation. Even more amazing, we could do this both by ourselves and with other participants — other kids, other friends, other siblings, even kids we never met before. Our whole world was a state of play.
This is dangerous to implement into the wrong kind of project that would never, ever consider a playful approach to a design, a business solution, a communications standard. You must have a willing participant. But when that willing participant comes, they’re at least intrigued by the hypothesis and have a specific element in mind to try it within some safe boundaries. From there, the faith remains that it’s such a wild success that the question keeps being brought up: “What else can we do together?”
That’s the key here: together. If we implement a process of fun but never offer to involve the client, project lead, et al into the act of play, it’s like inviting a friend over to play your Nintendo but you’re being a game hog by playing one-player cartridges. Play is ALWAYS a team sport, at least in context of helping a brand express themselves in ways they’ve never done before.
The Simple Effort of Showing Up
Stan Richards, one who’d I’d consider the most identical contemporary to David Ogilvy, wrote one of my favorite books on creativity and culture, The Peaceable Kingdom. Stan’s early vision for his own ad agency stemmed from a few bad experiences at other shops around the Dallas area in the late 70s and early 80s. He vowed for The Richards Group be the antithesis of the typical agency life he observed before, filled with politics and toxic tribalism. He tore out all the interior walls of his business and made desks/workstations essentially open seating, in an effort to embrace radical transparency and elicit effortless mingling among team members. That structure still exists today — Groupers, as they’re referred to, don’t even have formal titles aside from their talent or focus, stuffy corporate hierarchy be damned.
A big part of that radical transparency is being up-front about the creative process. Some agencies will come up with massive, complex diagrams that detail everything about their internal process and protect it with making any object with a pulse sign a non-disclosure agreement. But the process of Creativity on those same diagrams is always regarded with an opaque, shrouded, unspecific description. It’s a black hole, a void, an unknown entity. You can’t quantify it. You can’t mine it, purify it, bottle it, store it on a shelf somewhere, and uncork the magic at a moment’s notice when it’s most useful. Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar.
Stan makes the point in his book that the secret to creativity– the true, mystic secret sauce that is the heartbeat of the “creative process” –is dead simple: show up.
Attendance is the only constant one can control in the creative process. Everything else is a constant flow of mixed emotions, ideas, inspirations, muses, inputs, outputs, trials, errors, and all the other junk that comes with this funny, fickle experience of being human. But when we show up, put our best foot forward, and start engaging in an act of play (having fun, duh), we position ourselves to strike gold.
And if not gold, silver. And if not silver, copper. And if not copper, granite. And if not granite, water. Water, at the very least, is an essential element to preserve life, to quench the thirst of the needy and malnourished. The ROI on creativity is always worth it; it’s never a zero-sum effort. There’s incredible comfort and encouragement in that realization, and I suspect that’s the same sentiment for scores of creatives the world over.
Fun is What You Make It
An important distinction I’d stress is the difference between fun and happiness. Even in the throes of our profession’s eventual writers blocks and rejected pitches, one can still have fun, even if just by choice. Happiness is a feeling that usually follows life events or activities that help dictate one’s mood, which sometimes can be a result of, well, having fun. But fun, as a general activity, is an intentional action to enjoy a moment — completely independent of mood. Your sour disposition won’t be a direct hindrance to engaging in fun — and often, especially if we use fun as a distraction, we’ll find our mood improving with the fun we have.
So what does this mean for creative work? Well, not all assignments are fun, we know that much. Some are tiresome and boring, while others have a lot of pressure attached to them — timeline, budget, or otherwise. But usually there’s a way in most instances to inject fun into those efforts’ processes. Everyone’s favorite sailor-mouthed entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk enjoys “the process” SO MUCH that he actively wishes failure on his efforts so he can go back and experience the process all over again, hopefully with some improvements to make along the way. Crashing and burning is the epitome of fun to these people, and it’s perhaps because they’ve attached purpose– nay, gamesmanship –to their stumblings and fumblings. It’s how they get better. It’s how we all get better.
When I work or produce anything under this studio’s name, there’s a measured amount of risk that goes into the appropriate projects that create uncertainty, either in how the client receives the work or how their audiences react. It’s a gamble, but that’s part of the process. That’s part of the fun.
Great Work is a Byproduct of a Fun Culture
I’ve been a part of bad work culture in the past. I think most people have at one time or another. Some even suck it up and deal with it for their entire lives. Is that really how we were destined to live and work?
There are countless anecdotes out there about toxic environments, unrelenting office politics, and the whole gamut of our worst stories from workplaces, present in really any market segment imaginable. Many tell those stories like it’s a battle scar, more than happy to flaunt their story, inflate the details, maybe pour on mild embellishments, and occasionally glance at such a blemish adorning their LinkedIn work history with a willing smirk. In some ways, we trap ourselves into thinking that those experiences (and the work we suffered over) are the defining moments in our professional timeline that we have to work like hell to eventually eclipse with future successes. It’s very similar to how we see our personal failures: no matter how small they are, we always seem to feel like we’re trying to escape their shadow, escape their association.
The likely reality is that nobody (seriously, n-o-b-o-d-y) remembers you for your failures. You and I are defined by our successes, our moonshots. You only have to be right once, right? So why would we expect ourselves to take those moonshots, perform our best efforts, and take our biggest risks within a culture that sucks us dry of our ambition, joy, and cooperative spirit?
This is the importance culture plays in the act of creation. Creative work is, at its core, the fundamental state of play we mimic from childhood. Surrounding yourself in an environment that encourages such a thing can only result in a cooperative culture that encourages, celebrates, and lifts up one another. Our personal feelings connected to our work are disarmed so we can receive and act upon critique. Our strengths are sharpened and leveraged so we maximize the potential of the entire group. Our thirst for knowledge is heightened because we feel empowered to do so, free of stepping on the toes of others. When we’re all here to have fun, and to do fun work by extension, we free ourselves to do work that others can’t help but feel attracted to.
Personally and professionally, that’s an ethos I’ve attached myself to only just recently. We don’t need to take ourselves so seriously anymore, and that desire can instead be replaced with serious work being done in a way that feels nothing like work at all. You and I were meant to experience unbridled, reckless joy in the work we do together. Only then will we produce our best work.
Let’s have some fun.
Stephen is an artist, designer, creative director, and brand developer living in the Dallas, Texas, area.