I love your brain
13th May 2022
Author: Steve Martin, Creative Director

I love your brain

I had one of those very stereotypical creative moments.

It wasn’t an eureka moment in the shower, but it was close enough. I was brushing my teeth one Saturday morning, studying my reflection and wondering when my beard had become quite so grey when I had an idea. This idea wasn’t for a client or a pitch but just an idea that could be amazing. It wasn’t a piece of an idea, either, but the whole concept in my head, like a blinding light.

I needed to tell someone, so I went downstairs and explained it to my wife (who doesn’t work in advertising). She sat quietly for 15 minutes with a perplexed look on her face, watching me get overexcited about something she clearly didn’t understand, but felt she had to sit there and humour me while she drank her tea. At the end of my monologue, she responded with, ‘Yeah maybe’, before creating an excuse about the dog needing a walk and making a quick exit.

Not to be deterred, I switched on my Mac and wrote what turned out to be quite a long email to a couple of people within the agency explaining the idea. In fact, the email became a complete mind dump of creative thoughts, which when I read it back made very little sense. I then spent ten minutes trying to tidy it up, gave up and just sent it in the hope someone would understand what this great thought was about.

Then I had to wait for the response… which didn’t come until everyone was back at work on Monday. When it arrived, it turned out to be incredibly positive and with some hard work we might be able to make it happen. Watch this space.

One of the responses to my mind dump that caught my eye was,

‘I love your brain!’.

I love it too, but you don’t understand the torture, heartache and training I’ve put it through for you to love it. To most people’s surprise, it’s not easy coming up with ideas all the time. It takes time, energy, planning and self-doubt to get it right. Plus, years of training.

Sometimes people don’t love their brains or the ideas it produces, and will find themselves in cycles of needing to restart over and over and over. On top of that, your brain needs to deal with constructive criticism, which at times can be unforgiving.

When starting from scratch with idea generation, you need to ask yourself questions: Will other people like the idea? Will they understand it? Is it achievable in the time and budget? What will the outcome look like? How will it be perceived? Is this the best idea ever or have I maybe had one too many espressos today?

Over time, you learn to answer many of these questions for yourself. Your internal review process kicks in and you can decipher the good idea from the bad long before you present it to anyone. But, while you are learning (and you never really stop learning) you need to share your ideas and test the waters, get feedback, continually build on the idea and then ultimately show it to the Creative Director. It’s then a game of crossing your fingers and whatever the outcome is, learning from it. It is incredibly exciting, but it is also slightly terrifying.

Every creative will have their own process of generating ideas and every Creative Director will have their own advice on how to produce the best work. That is the beauty of working in an ever-evolving industry. There is never one single answer to anything, but it is our job to find the best fit for the brief. I’m not going to tell you how I generate ideas, because in all honesty I don’t really know how I do it. Sometimes ideas come instantly and other times it can take hours or even days, but below are a few thoughts I feel help create great creativity to help you on your way:

  • If you’re a passionate creative, you should already be doing this: learn the history of your industry. Find back copies of D&AD or Lürzer's Archive. Study them, and study them again. Try to work out what the brief was and how the creatives got to their answer
  • Research the product, the brand and the people you are trying to talk to. The better understanding you have of your audience, the better the creative will be
  • Don’t rush! Yes, we have tight deadlines to work to, but manage your time so that you have enough to really get inside the brief and understand its needs
  • No matter what your time limits are, never ‘bosh it out’. If anyone in my team ever says this, it is an instant red flag. I used to work with someone who said this all the time and it still makes me grind my teeth when I think about it. ‘Boshing it out’ means you are doing this job for the wrong reason; it is a paycheck at the end of the month instead of a career you are looking for. ‘Boshing it out’ is disrespectful to your colleagues, the product, the client, and even to a degree to yourself. I'm pretty sure you’ve worked hard to get where you are, so why waste the opportunities that are presented to you? Sometimes the worst brief can create the best opportunities if you work hard to find them
  • Always keep a printed copy of the brief on your desk to refer to
  • Be ethical and conscientious
  • Remember why we are doing this job. We are here to sell a product or service in the most efficient and creative way possible. Yes, we can make it look beautiful and craft an amazing headline. If we are lucky, we may pick up an award for it. But what we are not doing is creating art. There is a commercial reason for everything we produce. You need to remember who you are creating for (and it is not for ourselves or an awards judging panel)
  • If you do want to stretch your job description and be more than just an art director, copywriter or designer, then become a storyteller. Some of my best award-winning work had a strong, consistent narrative that ran throughout. Instead of just selling a product, create a story that the viewer can truly believe in. This is especially true in healthcare where the patient should be central to any narrative. Even something as simple as a logo can tell a story; look at Toblerone, where the hidden bear inside the mountain symbolises the unique honey found in the chocolate
  • Feed your brain. Read books you wouldn’t normally read, watch movies, go to the theatre, take up origami. Last year I finished a two-year part-time MA photography course, mainly because I wanted to push my creativity in a different direction. While I am not sure it has made me a better photographer, my critical awareness from an analytical, philosophical, ethical and historical point of view has increased dramatically and these ways of thinking are now applied to all of my work

I could go on, and maybe I will another time. But for now, I will conclude by saying that if you want to be a successful creative you need to be brave, take risks, ask questions, and challenge both yourself and others around you. Keep training your brain, feeding it and loving it. Because if you do, it will keep producing those eureka moments.