HOW TO GET A JOB AS AN AD AGENCY CREATIVE 002: how to impress a creative director
A critical part of getting and keeping a job as an ad agency creative is impressing your creative directors. But how do you do that?
Get inside their heads
Have you ever seen the movie “What Women Want”?
All creatives do all day long is ask themselves “What do X want?”
All day asking: “what benefit does this product offer that our target audience wants?”
Well, in this section, we are going to thinking about “What Creative Directors Want”.
Like you would when tackling a brief. Try to get inside the heads of creative directors.
What drives them? What motivates them?
Creatives and Creative Directors. It is a relationship akin to footballers and football managers.
The manager of Arsenal will hire a striker if they will help them score goals and win championships. It does not matter what team they currently play for.
It is the same with Creative Directors. They will only bring you on board if they think you are going to help them win. If you are going to help them make great work. Work that sells products and receives industry recognition.
Ask a Creative Director for a job and their answer will be:
“Why? What’s in it for me?”
One way or another, you must be able to answer that question.
Think of yourself as the product you are trying to sell. Think of Creative Directors as your target audience.
What have you got to offer them that they want from a creative, that they do not currently have in their department?
Is their department is quite traditional? Is it full of talented people who can write brilliant advertising ideas and campaigns? But no one who can prototype, or code?
Creative Directors value people who can make great ideas happen. This is as important (if not more so) than people who can have great ideas in the first place.
So how will you position yourself?
Your competition is the creatives a Creative Director already has working for them. What do you have that is unique?
Grab a piece of paper and write in black marker pen:
“What do creative directors want?”
To help get you started we have prepared a list of 10 things.
-Someone who makes their life easier.
-Someone who makes them look good.
-Someone with energy.
-Someone who thinks for themselves.
-Someone whose ideas challenge and scare them.
-Someone who out-thinks and out-works anyone they already have in their agency.
-Someone who thinks in an outrageous and unusual, but relevant way.
-Someone who is better than they were at that particular experience level.
-Someone who makes things happen.
-Someone who produces brutally simple work.
See how many things you can come up. Like method acting, really try to get into the head of a creative director.
Having looked at the work, think:
“What do David Droga and Nick Worthingon want from people entering their agency?”
If you are not on a placement
If you are not a placement and you do not have a Creative Director to help guide your thinking. You can of course use creatives at book crits to do this.
One trick is to have a page of advertising thoughts/ lines on the back page of your portfolio. 8–10 thoughts in progress that you can share and talk about.
Nothing more than a logo and a line/ thought. What is so great about this?
Creatives will begin to tell you which thoughts are good. They may even offer you ideas and forget doing so. At the next book crit they will then tell you, your idea is genius. When in fact, it is their idea. (At which point you stay silent and smile).
You can also play your own creative director.
Be careful with this. Because when you are starting out, you might not be able to spot a good idea. So you have to use your judgment.
Do not select your favourite ideas, do this process and then kill off three of them. Use it as a way to judge what might be some of the better ones, then lead with those.
Have a collection of 2–3 quotes from industry professionals you respect. You can use these as a yardstick for your ideas.
For example, some of our contributors use the below as a yardstick for their work:
1. “You can get away with anything if you’re funny. But have you got away with anything? And was it funny?”
That quote requires you to ask if your idea is unexpected or outrageous enough? But also, if it is funny enough to allow you to get away being so outrageous in the first place.
2. “Mad yes. But relevant also.”
This quote reminds you that no matter how crazy your idea is, it has be relevant to the product, service or brand.
Does that brand have a right to do/ say that? Why?
Volvo can make an invisible spray paint that illuminates cyclists at night.
They can do this because Volvo is a car brand that has stood for safety for decades.
But also because hundreds of cyclists die on London’s roads every year.
3. “Show me something that scares me.”
This second one is a good one. People should be a little nervous about presenting your work to clients.
Not because it is terrible work.
Or there is a profanity in the headline.
But because the client would have to be very brave to buy it.
It is the sort of idea that would get on the news, on the front page of the national press and that would set twitter on fire.
Have a look at your idea… Will it do any of that?
Find a way to build things into your ideas that will make them famous.
Not because a client could spend lots of money getting it to appear in lots of different places. Like magazines and on television. But something actually within the idea that will get everyone talking about it.
Let us say you are working on the next John Lewis Christmas advert. There will likely be an opportunity to write a beautiful 2-minute (or more) film. The agency and the client will ensure this film appears in many places, online and offline.
But you can still build something into the idea that will make the idea famous. (Which John Lewis’ agency, adam&eveDDB often do.)
The placement book is the fashion catwalk
As highly-awarded creative team Christen Brestrup and Bertie Scrase once put it:
“The work in a placement team’s book should be like clothes on a fashion catwalk.”
Have you ever attended a big-city fashion week? You see all manner of bizarre and outlandish outfits on display. 3-piece suits made of carbon fibre and skirts made of inflatable latex. They are hardly mass market items. Very few normal people will ever wear them out for a night on the town.
But what they do, do is show the entire world the potential of fashion. How great fashion could be. How striking, interesting and outlandish we could look.
-If we were all a bit braver.
-If we all cared less what other people thought about us.
-If there weren’t practical limitations in mass-market clothing. Like strict cloth cutting patterns and factory output targets.
It gives us an idea of what fashion can be when the restraints are lifted.
The placement book is exactly the same.
There are no clients.
There are no budgets.
There is no advertising standards authority.
There is nothing holding you back…
And so every page should prove how smart, funny and lateral a thinker you are.
Every page of your portfolio should make industry creatives jealous. Make them think;
“I wish I’d thought of that”. Or “everyone would be talking about that, if that happened”.
Often, there is only one limitation in a placement book. It is the limitation the aspiring creative(s) has placed on themselves.
They are afraid that their idea isn’t funny.
They are afraid to be too edgy or too provocative.
They are afraid that their work will offend people.
Almost every aspiring creative does the same thing.
A good tutor or mentor must knock this behaviour out of you. If they do not, your work will always be a watered down version of what it could be. More tame, less funny and less provocative.
You are conscientious and you are trying to make a good impression and get into the industry.
Irrational fears start to set in. You think of an idea and it makes you laugh out loud. But you do not put it in your book.
Despite it being perfectly relevant. You are afraid it might offend someone and suddenly, that door into the industry could close.
Let us re-assure you, this is never going to happen. At absolute worst, a creative will tell you they think the idea might be not quite right. Or might be a bit too much, a bit too provocative. They may then help you steer it back to a place that makes more sense.
As JWT creative Miles Bingham once said:
“If your work is clinically insane, it’s interesting and I can help you to make it make sense. But if it’s boring, it’s boring.”
What an industry creative will (or should) never do with outlandish and provocative work, is refuse to see you ever again and tell their friends in the industry to do the same.
It sounds so silly when you read it on paper. Doesn’t it?
But it is these kinds of irrational fears that will affect your work and slow your progress.
So put them out of your mind.
If it makes you laugh, put it in your book.
If it would honestly make you buy the product/ service, put it in your book.
If you would honestly share it, put it in your book.
The worst that can happen, is that you have to take it back out.
Every page in your portfolio is like a mini-audition tape. So put on your best performance.
An honest conversation
As famed art-director and creative director Dave Dye puts it. Try to think of your advertising communications as honest conversations.
Whatever your idea, let us imagine you are at the pub. Talking with a friend over a pint. (This is a friend you respect. Who regularly calls you out on your bullshit.)
Could you say your idea to a friend with a straight face?
For example. Guinness takes longer to pour than any other pint. So Guinness often has to justify this wait to pub-goers.
Can you look them your friend in the eye and say:
“The thing is, good things come to those who wait. Like a surfer waiting for the perfect wave. The taste of a Guinness is worth waiting for.”
The answer is, very likely.
But does the same apply to your own strategic idea?
If it doesn’t, it may not be the right idea.
A great placement book idea should be the last thing you would expect a brand to say or do. That actually convinces you to buy, or at least try.
Sometimes finding this can be as easy as being very honest with yourself . Saying:
“Ok, what’s not great about the product/ service/ brand?”
Then taking that truth and trying to find a benefit or a silver-lining in it.
Here is a great example from Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple Squeeze This.
It is an idea for Crocs sandals.
The unavoidable truth about Crocs is that they are exceptionally ugly.
This might seem like an impossible truth to find a benefit in. But if they are ugly, who could benefit?
Well, if you are wearing ugly shoes then it is very unlikely that anyone would want to sleep with you.
Is there a target market who does not want to have sex? Or does not want someone else to have sex?
What about parents? Parents are always worrying about their teenage kids having sex too early and getting pregnant.
Before you know it, you have arrived. You have a brilliant, unexpected and relevant advertising idea.
The creative-in-question finally presented the line as:
“Crocs. Birth-control available in 15-bright colours”.
Does it leap off of the page?
Chis Bovill and John Allinson are Executive Creative Directors of Channel 4 Creative. They have a list of placement advertising ideas that they share with people.
Here is a little intro from Chris and John:
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a print ad or masterminding a cross-platform-social-engagement-VR-widget-thingie.
You always need a brilliant strategy.
A one line idea.
Sell me the product.
Put it in a new light.
Turn its negative into a positive.
Sell it to an entirely new audience.
Always give me a benefit and if possible, make us love something we hate.
We’ve always believed that you should be able to “write” your portfolio in 7 or 8 lines.
Big hairy lateral thinking boiled down into a few words.
Around 15-years ago we didn’t have families or diaries creaking under the weight of back-to-back meetings.
So we saw student teams.
One a day for about 5-years.
What we didn’t realise is that we were learning to be creative directors.
By the time we moved to Fallon we started to get very busy and probably saw one team a week.
However, by then we’d compiled this list.
It’s the strategies that stood out.
Pinged off the page.
The fact that every few months a young team asks us “have you seen this list?” shows they’ve stood the test of time.
Pick holes in them all you like.
But they’re still standing proud after a decade.
As you can see from the list above. Every single idea does exactly what Chris and John talk about.
Remember the quote from earlier in this chapter?
“Mad yes. But relevant also.”
This is a very important thought to remember. Especially when putting your book together.
The idea has to be mad, eye catching and attention grabbing.
If it isn’t, no one will ever notice it, pay attention to it or remember it.
But it also has to be relevant to your product, service or brand.
If it isn’t. No one will understand it or act upon it.
It is wrong to say ‘shit’ in your headline just to get attention.
But what if your brand is ‘Anti-Slavery International’? Now it is not only is it attention grabbing, but it makes perfect sense. It’s an earth-wire into the product, service or brand. Otherwise known as ‘relevant madness’.
Bill Bernbach is an advertising legend. The man that basically invented good advertising. A famous quote from him explains this point further:
“Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product. You are not right if in your ad you stand a man on his head just to get attention. You are right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets.”
Boring, but relevant. This is where most people trying to get into the industry start with their book.
Then people have a few meetings with creatives. They begin hearing that their work needs to be more unexpected, more lateral and more “crazy”.
This leads them to do work that it is in a camp of mad and irrelevant. After many book crits, something clicks. The individual realises that the work has to be both unexpected/ lateral/ mad and relevant.
Not just that, but that the two go hand-in-hand. It is so mad because it is so true. It is so relevant and feels so true because of how mad it is. The madness has brought the truth to life.
If you are on placement, worry less about your work being sold to clients. Worry more about impressing your Creative Director. Showing them that you can constantly come up with fresh, brilliant and relevant ideas. If they are a good creative director, this will be more important to them than the clients buying your work.
Secondly, if the client is good at their job, they should be buying work that is fresh, brilliant and relevant. But advertising is a people business and some people are not good at their jobs.
At some point, a client buying your work will be beneficial. It might tie you to the agency for a particular period of time. But this should be a side effect, not the goal.
What if you had no money?
There are no limitations in a placement portfolio.
This is a huge blessing.
But sometimes it can be a curse.
Sometimes, when you know you can do anything, it is hard to do something very clever. To use cheesy business terms; sometimes you need a box in order to think outside of it.
There is a fantastic book called A Beautiful Constraint. Which we recommend you read. It teaches you how constraints can help creativity flourish. Whether self imposed or otherwise.
This is not about imposing mountains of limitations on yourself. As we have discussed, we want your portfolio to be like a catwalk at Milan fashion week.
But. If you are stuck. Try imposing one very precise constraint upon yourself, coupled with a giant ambition. It can sometimes be the rocket fuel you need to get to a great idea.
There is a very famous quote:
“Gentlemen, we’ve run out of money, so we shall have to think”.
What a great thought.
Money is easy. Money is lazy.
Just because you don’t have money does not mean you cannot achieve the result. You just have to get creative about solving the problem. Turn it from a problem you cannot solve into one you can. Often referred to by Dave Trott as ‘predatory thinking’.
So if you are struggling with a brief. Think about what you would need to do to get the product/ service/ brand on the news, without spending a single pound.
What would you do? What is the newspaper headline your idea would create?
It will amaze you how much this can sharpen your thinking.
Just five more minutes
When you are really, really struggling.
When you just cannot come up with any more ideas.
When you want to have a break.
When you want a cup of tea.
When you want check Facebook.
When you want to go on Youtube or Buzzfeed…
“I’m just going to do five more minutes.”
When that five minutes is up, tell yourself you’re going to do another four, then three, two, one.
It sounds silly. But sometimes magic is hiding in those extra minutes. Like extra-time in football. That extra slice of time can change the fate of both teams.
Push yourself to forage deeper. To think longer and harder to come up with a fresh idea. You will be amazed at what you can find.
The better you get, the more boring you get
As your portfolio starts to grow stronger. As creatives start to respond better to your ideas, start to challenge yourself.
Start picking bigger, more challenging clients to do work for.
If all you have been doing is fizzy drinks and chocolate bars, work on something bigger. Something more challenging.
Work on banks, insurance companies, airlines, car manufacturers and supermarkets.
It is easy to do interesting work on interesting products.
But creatives that can do interesting work on boring products. They are then people creative directors want in their department.
The juice has to be worth the squeeze
If you have a Social Media idea you are passionate about. It is easy to assume that people will be willing to engage with it.
“So all people have to do, is allow the app to access their Facebook profile and take over it for a week, then click on this unique link which takes them to a dedicated microsite where they upload a short video of themselves doing something quirky and write a short 300-word bio about themselves and then we’ll print their face on our packaging.”
Re-read that paragraph and ask yourself:
“Honestly, would I do this?”
Never underestimate the indifference of the general public.
When it comes to advertising on social media, the juice has to be worth the squeeze.
Meaning the effort that you ask people to put in has to be worth the reward you give them.
If you want people to engage with your client on social media, the effort that they have to make must be minimal. The reward they get must be maximal.
If you are on a placement
Work ethic is a big thing for Creative Directors.
So if you are on a placement, make sure you are in the office before they are.
Don’t feel like you have to work late because they are.
If you have no work to do. If you have exhausted yourself. Go home.
We encourage you to get into the office as early as you healthily can. This helps you to get a head start on your competition. (Other creatives in the department that already have a job).
But there is something you must bear in mind. Whether you are in the office 4-minutes before your creative director, or 4 hours, they don’t know.
All they know is that you are in before them.
So if you are not a ‘morning team’ find out when your creative director gets in.
Then get in before them. Even if it is only a couple of minutes.
Cracking the creative code
Most Creative Directors are exceptional creatives. They have a history of outstanding work. If you can understand what they are telling you to do, you will produce fantastic work.
When properly understood, feedback from a Creative Director can be sorted into one of three useful camps, each of which sends you in one very simple direction.
But the key phrase here is to understand what it is they are saying.
Feedback from your creative director will likely fall into one of these three camps:
1. The work is not right. Here is why. Here is the sort of thing that would be right. Go and pursue this specific direction.
2. The work could be right. Here is how it won’t be right. Here is how it could be right. Go and pursue this specific direction.
3. The work is right. Here is why. Here is how to make sure it stays right. Go and pursue this specific direction.
Whatever camp your work falls into, you need to know why. This is how you will learn to spot a good idea.
If you hear that the work is not right. But your Creative Director does not tell you why, politely ask.
“Why is this work not right? I want to know so that next time, it is.”
Paul Arden was a famous Art-Director. He was also an author and Executive Creative Director of Saatchi and Saatchi London.
He is famous for walking into reviews with his Creative Directors and proactively asking:
“What is wrong with my work?”
It seemed to work for him. Maybe it will work for you.
Show some initiative
If you are on a placement, make sure you show some initiative.
Remember we said that ever creative is part-hustler.
When your creative directors were starting out, they would have been the same. They will spot it and appreciate it in you, if you let them see it.
They want to see that you are industrious. But they also want to see that you are street-smart.
Let us say you have received a brief to write a product heavy, digital banner advert. You have to use existing imagery. You have to use a headline written by the client.
At the same time, there is a big, juicy brief floating around the agency. But you are not officially on that brief.
The big, juicy brief is the obvious thing to focus on.
Do the banner ad and do it well. But do it quickly and move onto the juicy brief.
Hang around the printer a while longer the next time you go to retrieve your work. (Or print something just so that you can hang around the printer.) Rifle through any scrap paper, see if the brief is there.
Better yet, sneak up to the desks of a team you know is working on the brief. (When they’re not in the office). Pinch the brief. Photocopy it and return it.
They will be none-the-wiser but you have potentially given yourself a shot at getting hired.
Do not wait to be told what to do. Or to be given something to do. Work proactively.
Print out a page of the logos of all the clients that the agency works for. Even if you only spend half an hour each morning working on one of them, it is better than nothing…
And again… you are giving yourself more opportunities to get hired.
If you get tired of working with no brief at all, use something else as a stimulus, like the United Nations international days.
If you are working at an agency that has a clothing brand. What could you do for ‘World Day against Child Labour’ or ‘World Environment Day’.
Traditionally, many clothing brands are known for using child and sweatshop labour. Generally, they are also known for not caring about the environment. This is already an interesting starting point with a real tension at the heart of it.
It is going to be a lot easier to come up with a great idea starting from here than starting from a blank piece of paper.
If you are desperate for more work, make friends with people in project management.
These are the people that control and hand out the briefs. If you are friends with them, you will soon find more projects coming your way.
Offer to work in your own time, at night or at the weekend. This way you may get your hands on projects that would usually go to more senior creatives.
Do whatever it takes to sweet-talk them into giving you the gold.