Being Creative Without a Brief (Or a Client)

I recently entered a gap between assignments looking for new things to do (this first post to Medium — with more planned — is one result). But when I asked myself to dream up new, self-assigned projects… I drew a blank.

Without a client brief, without external direction, without “permission” to be creative… I just wasn’t.

Sure, there was plenty of busy-work and R&D I could do... Informed by regular client work in interactive installations and the like, I have a backlog of technical challenges and workflows to explore (photogrammetry for 3D asset creation, possibly porting our REX C++ framework into Unreal Engine for interactive 2D content overlays, and custom Bluetooth LE GATT service programming).

But I couldn’t get over that embarrassing blank: the fact that I had no original creative concepts, no unique explorations, and no novel executions in mind. Worse, I had a distressing feeling that I was unlikely to have any ever again. I seemed to have lost the ability to be spontaneously creative. Without a client brief, without external direction, without “permission” to be creative… I just wasn’t.

Is it really that important?

I could still do my job. I still felt comfortable that — given a client problem to solve — I could go off for creative exploration and return with some interesting options and ideas. Given a design or business goal, I could block out a creative solution. I could rely on grounded experience and a design process, rather than formless “creativity”.

But… something still felt wrong. I could remember a time when I (admittedly, a significantly younger version of me) could generate plenty of ideas and develop them as independent, standalone exercises. And I couldn’t ignore the truth that that speculative work isn’t a solipsistic indulgence. On the contrary: your self-generated creative works can end up being extremely valuable to clients.

Developing a creative execution first, and then casting about for a client to match it to may sound terrible to you. Certainly, it chafes against many of the traditional advertising principles I normally subscribe to (identifying the client’s value proposition, researching their product and their clients to understand pain points and benefits — basically developing a proper creative brief to begin with)… I concede that shoehorning a pre-existing execution into a client’s marketing (or vice-versa) sounds like the exact opposite of a thoughtful, custom execution.

But, with many forms of advertising — especially “experiential” or “immersive” advertising — spectacle is paramount. Marketers will look for a striking execution that already fires up their imaginations and hope to draft their brand or message into the slipstream.

Perhaps not a perfect example, but a recent one that springs immediately to my mind, is the Rick and Morty VR game. Per this Polygon article, “Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland is a VR enthusiast, and was a huge fan of Job Simulator. He invited the team over to his house to play games and hang out, and the idea of collaborating on the game seemed natural.”

Sure, this is a mutually beneficial product licensing agreement (mashing up a popular cartoon show with a multi-million sales figure VR game) and not simply an advertising execution, but, from a marketing perspective — viewing the show creator as the client — I think it could be argued that, in this case, the client loved the Job Simulator execution so much that there was no doubt he would find a way to marry it with his brand.

Self-generated creative works can end up being extremely valuable to clients.

If we’re honest, finding an existing creative execution and then working backward to a client happens regularly in other types of advertising as well. Sometimes, an agency is struck by the work of an independent artist or creator and basically rents their ideas or style. (Sadly, sometimes it can also manifest as straight-up theft, as in the McDonald’s advertisements below.)

Ok, it’s important...

Getting back to my lack of ideas — there was more than a bit of ego wrapped up in the question as well. I like to imagine myself as a maker and creator — could I really not think of anything interesting to build on my own, without a client and paycheck waiting on me?

Fortunately, my wife was there to witness this hand-wringing, and she put me on the right track with a single comment. “You’re out of practice,” she said.

Not the sort of advice that hits you like a lightning bolt. It’s not like, “Oh, of course! What a fool I was!” It’s more something to ponder, to wonder: could that be it? Is that why I’m bankrupt of ideas? Simply because I haven’t been trying to have ideas? And I stumbled again: Wait a second, how the hell do I “try” to have ideas without a brief anyway?

I think the fact is, you don’t try to have ideas. You simply try to be receptive to their arrival. And this receptivity is something that can be practiced. It’s a door that can be opened, closed, and opened again.

I had — unintentionally — learned to open the door only on receiving a client brief. Once the project was defined, and the direction was set, I pretty much closed the door again and carried out the workmanlike tasks of execution.

After receiving her advice, there followed a period of about a week. During this week, I “opened the door,” and, even though no brilliant ideas or insights came through, I left it open. Even though I had no idea what I was even looking for — Ack! No brief! — I left it open.

I tried not to worry or fret about not having my own ideas, but to simply trust that they’d come.

I watched movies, I went to an engineering meetup and listened to other people talk about their own projects. I tried not to worry or fret about not having my own ideas, but to simply trust that they’d come.

And then one came. It was no Einsteinian revelation, just a simple mashup of two technologies to form an execution I’d not seen before. I dutifully sketched it in my notebook. The next morning, I had another idea over breakfast. I sketched it down as well. The next day, I had two more.

The lesson here, I suppose, is that losing your creativity isn’t a permanent condition.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now.”Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

…Maybe it’s really important.

I don’t think this phenomenon is uncommon or specific to any single industry. I’ve spoken to friends in screenwriting who’ve witnessed the phenomenon among their peers — certain writers become accustomed to taking studio assignments. The work is comfortable in many ways: there’s a guaranteed check, there’s already some level of buy-in (hopefully), there’s a framework of expectations. But they can wake up one day to discover they haven’t created any of their own intellectual property for years, and they’re afraid to sink the time into a spec script when there’s no guarantee of reward.

There can also be an additional, insidious effect: rather than being appreciated as a responsible craftsperson who’s able to find a uniquely suited voice for each project, one can suddenly find themselves classed as a lowly jobber… a middling talent with no “voice” of their own.

Most likely, the first half of that description is untrue. Any artist or technician who can successfully deliver on complicated or demanding projects is already — skills-wise — likely comparable with others at the top of their field and by definition not a “middling talent”.

“If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan.”Terence McKenna

But, accomplished as one may be, not being perceived as having a “voice” of one’s own can put you in a different (read “lower”) class — like a designer handbag versus a knockoff. A journeyman comic book artist who can draw expertly in any style may end up only doing journeyman work… while an artist with their own unique, idiosyncratic style — perhaps even an artist who doesn’t have much of a “range” — can become a star.

Being seen as able to create and innovate without outside prompting marks you as unpredicatable. Being unpredictable (with regard to creativity, at least) makes you interesting.

And people like that. Interesting is good.

Christopher Lepkowski is an interactive software consultant specializing in custom experiences for entertainment and advertising. He is the owner and director of Planimal Interactive in Los Angeles.