By Craig Jackman
I’ve been there, often. You’ve been there too, and maybe you are there right now. Creatively dry. The Rep comes in, needing a buffo spot or campaign to blow the socks off a client. This time, they’ve even brought in all the needed information, and surprise, surprise it’s even correct. The deadline seems quite reasonable. You clear out a couple of things from your work list to concentrate on this challenging task. You begin, and… nothing. There’s nothing there except for the occasional rolling tumbleweed and that Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western harmonica theme in your vast creative wasteland.
Try as you might there is just nothing to jump start any ideas for what you need. Try as you might, all you come up with is a blank screen, with that annoyingly never ceasing flash of the cursor. Oh how I feel your pain, and hopefully, I’m here to help. Every situation is different, and your mileage may vary, but here are my tips for getting through a dry creative block.
First, don’t try to force it. There is nothing worse than blowing out a creative o-ring, trying to force something that isn’t there out the idea pipe. Everything I’ve ever done that was good, or at least I liked even the least little bit, came easily — either instantly as if by magic, or naturally through a process. Straining away at something is only going to lead to pulled creative muscle, and you don’t need that pain. If your efforts are only leading you to frustration, then save your sanity and please stop. Step away from the client’s information, and keep your pen where I can see it. Go on to something else and let that problem creative simmer on the back burner for a while. Maybe your ideas just need a little more time to ripen on the vine. Nothing wrong with that, or to worry about, go on and get something else done. You’ll still have time to work on this, so clearing out the other flotsam will preserve that time for later.
When you do step back to revisit this creative try just barfing out a basic 30 second spot. 10 lines of copy with the client name three times, the kind of spot we delight in making fun of. Don’t think; just do, even if you do it by rote. Copy and paste liberally from the supplied copy points. Leave your editor sword in its sheath, and for this one time spelling and grammar don’t count, just burp it out as fast as you can. There, progress has been made, you’ve gotten that bad idea out of your system, or if you’re really talented you have something to fall back upon. Sometimes just getting the client name in radio context sparks something worthwhile you can explore and polish. If so, use that as a stepping off point and dive right in. If not, then put it aside in the client file, or better yet, hit DELETE on it. Feel a sense of accomplishment for the 30 seconds after you finish and move on to how you really want the spot to wind up.
If nothing comes of that approach, don’t start beating yourself up as it’s not time for that yet. Set the information aside again. You’ve been through it time and time again, so sitting and staring at the copy points isn’t going to bring salvation. Maybe you just need a different approach, to look at it from a different perspective. As my Creative Partner is fond of saying, imagine going into the house through the drain pipe instead of the front door. Take your advertising professional hat off, and put your consumer’s pants on, or put yourself first person in the client’s shoes and speak from a position of pride. Daydream, go extreme and think from a totally different perspective and imagine thinking as a different sex or even a different species. You want a cliché? Call it thinking out of the box. As I truly hate that cliché, really more what I’m suggesting is closer to climbing into the box, sealing it up, and thinking about the client as if you were a product on the shelf.
OK, maybe that approach didn’t work for you. They try talking it out. Asking for help does not automatically make you a bad person or an inferior member of the team. In fact I’d argue just the opposite, asking for help is an indicator of strength. You need to find someone who; 1) you trust, 2) won’t mock you or your ideas unless they really deserve it, and 3) like you, they really care about doing the best work possible. It can be someone at work, it can be a significant other, and it can be a bud completely outside the media world. It may be more than just one person. You don’t need to flatter yourself; neither you nor any other single person has the mystical key that will always unlock good ideas. It really is alright to ask for help! I’m not too proud to admit that almost all of my professional success (OK, all of it...) has come through collaboration with a handful of equally funny, crazy, smart, dedicated, honest, passionate people. Some of them acted as equal, even greater than equal collaborators, in all aspects of the spot from script to voice to music choice to “what if we did this?” production ideas and tricks. Some were just partners in a game of creative tennis, hitting an idea back and forth instead of a ball. Some were just sounding boards I bounced ideas off until something stuck. Some just smiled and nodded, while slowly backing up before running out of the room in a panic.
The last straw for me is the idea bank. Some people suggest keeping a file or notebook with neat idea phrases to kick start your creativity. I keep mine in my head and access it only when I really need it, and usually only when I’m away from the station.
That is the last, and maybe best, suggestion I have for you, and that is to not be afraid to get away from your desk to think. That can be anything from aimlessly wandering the hallways at the station, to sitting in the food court at the mall to people watch, to sitting quietly on the couch with pencil and paper after the kids have gone to bed. Just as when you were imagining from a different perspective, it helps to actually put yourself in a different space, away from questions, phones, email alerts, and other distractions. Whatever you need to do to get in your creative zone to try on some new ideas is what you need to do. When someone asks, you’ll be able to explain it that simply, and the boss will understand, particularly when you back yourself up with great results.
Great ideas are like butterflies, delicate at first, and you never know how many are out in the meadow, or even what kind you will get in your net when you go out and give it a swirl. However, the more you go hunting for butterflies, the more you’ll be certain of where to go when you have to look for them, and more specifically where the big ones are hiding. When you go looking for good ideas on a regular basis, you’ll learn what you have to do to find them, and I fully expect some of the things you have to do won’t be on this list. Certainly, your order will be different from mine, and that’s OK too. Whatever you have to do is what you have to do. If you have something you do that regularly fires a creative spark for you, let us all know. The Lord knows that I need all the help I can get on more than one occasion, and I love discovering new — or new to me — things. C’mon, really the absolutely only thing that matters in the end is what comes out of the speakers and how the audience responds to it. The best part is, just like nature, a rainy season will follow the dry season, and once the ideas start coming they will stay coming for a good long time.