We were debating how bad creative gets made and then run, and run, and run... I argued that a healthy company wouldn't let bad creative air twice and Ken argued that once the investment is made the creative is usually run regardless of quality. Ken eventually compiled his thoughts into an articulate, as usual, blog which summarizes his experiences with: "in most cases, spots get safer and dumber and less attention-getting when clients start messing with them."
After a fun breakfast meeting with Ken I took the topic to SmallBoxers Lydia Whitehead and Jason Ward to get their input. Our conversation was recorded last week during our recent Factory Week and then transcribed by Kasey Bradley and cleaned up by me. It's a bit long but I think there's some good dialog here so I wanted to share all of it. Also, I thought it would be fun to discuss creative collaboration, collaboratively!
Here we go!
Jeb: Jason, I know from our previous conversations that you believe there is a Platonic ideal. The perfect ideal exists out there and that our goal is to get as close to that as possible.
Jason: Yes. The collaboration piece is the opportunity to create the buy-in around that ideal. It's not necessarily to create the ideal. It may help discover that ideal but the actual byproduct is the buy-in, not the ideal. The ideal just exists and we need to find it.
Jeb: So collaboration can't get in the way of reaching that ideal.
Jeb: Whereas I think there is no ideal.
Lydia: I would agree with that. I think there are may be a number of ways that a project could go, or how something could be successfully solved.
Jeb: There's many positive, good outcomes that the creative process can arrive at, and I believe there's no single ideal out there.
Lydia: Well I think, and you're also kind of touching on the iterative nature of things too, I almost wonder how that plays in to Ken's point- how can you be iterative with something when you've just shelled out $75,000 or so to make a commercial. You know?
Jeb: The money blinds you to the flaws in the creative work. Potentially?
Jason: I think the investment creates an expectation that… while I do believe there is an ideal type out there for just about every thing, every concept, every product, I don’t know that everyone always gets there. So I think that when you introduce money into the equation or any incentive to the equation you get in the way of buy-in, because people have ulterior motives about making sure that it was efficient or making sure that they were heard more than someone else because they are the one paying for it.
Lydia: But I would also argue, sort of going back to the creative process for something that costs $75,000 or whatever the case may be - what does that process look like and is it antiquated now? Does it need to be improved on so that you're not getting to a point where you have made this commercial that you can't change or that you can't run. You know what I mean?
Jeb: If you think about traditional media, you have to ship something and it's pretty hard to pull it back. Like once you print something, it's printed. Once you place an ad you can swap ads out of rotation but a lot of times once you've made the buy, creative is committed with the buy.
Jason: And that to me is why buy-in is the byproduct of collaboration. It's the most important product of collaboration because…
Jeb: (interrupting) But does it create better creative? Does buy-in create better creative? I'm not sure it does…
Lydia: Yeah, I'm not sure either.
Jeb: What creates better creative? I think collaboration does. I think one of the byproducts of collaboration is buy-in, but that's not necessarily what creates. I think that's a byproduct of collaboration.
Lydia: Well, I think the refinement of ideas, the exploration and discovery...
Lydia: Understanding… Understanding the problem. Like having a problem and not just making something for the sake of making something - that's art, right?
Jeb: So you're distinguishing between art and commercial creative.
Jeb: Creative work that has a commercial purpose is…
Lydia: …is a different type of collaboration…
Jeb: It requires different rules than an artistic endeavor.
Jason: Yeah, I agree with that… I would argue that you can't have true, open collaboration as long as the exchange of an incentive is one way. I think when someone gives you money to do something the expectation is that we serve that company and it's a hard thing to find someone who still believes that that's a relationship in which the power is shared. That's why I think the buy-in piece is so important.
Jeb: The buy-in into the process.
Jason: And the final product. If everyone feels like they were heard during that process and can buy-in to the resulting idea, product, solution, that is the best thing you can expect from every collaboration, even if you don't get the best idea.
Jeb: So what if the client has terrible ideas? How do we handle terrible ideas in a collaborative way? How do we test them?
Lydia: Well I think that goes back to testing them against the problem. Does it solve the problem? Because I think sometimes where ideas may be bad are in how they solve the problem… or don't solve the problem.
Jeb: So part of the structure we have to create in the collaborative process is a structure for testing ideas.
Jason: Yeah. And a structure for determining what is a successful collaboration.
Jeb: Right. But how do we create that structure to test ideas for their validity…
Lydia: I think that starts with creating a purpose for that collaboration. That collaborative exercise, like, when we did the web site wireframes, at the top of that meeting we said "okay, we're all going to draw a home page that solves the problem of making our culture transparent…”
Jeb: Creating believers.
Lydia: Yes, and creating believers, and so with that sort of, you know, like adding shape… adding that structure, you know. Collaboration to me isn't just free-form. When we set out to do the vision boards we said, "okay, we're going to look at things that feel SmallBox-y and kind of set the tone for what we all want from the new site, to get us all on the same page”.
Jason: What I'm hearing you saying, and you tell me if I'm wrong, is that I think you have to have that discovery up front to have a shared goal. There has to be a purpose for that collaboration. Everyone has to agree on that purpose…and if that's the case, if there's 100% agreement on that purpose then it's pretty easy to test the solutions you come up with…
Jeb: Purpose becomes the test… It becomes the test during the collaborative process to vet ideas and see whether they stick or whether they get set aside.
Jason: It's something to bounce off of…
Jeb: Right. So the problem with most creative is that it doesn't start with purpose. It's often trying to build towards an outcome without considering origins.
Jason: Yeah. You start solving for an unknown problem…
Jeb: Right. Without fully answering the question- does the purpose speak to the problem?
Lydia: Yeah. I think so, in some form or fashion.
Jason: It all comes down to asking good questions, right? I mean, we're talking about going backward from collaboration to discovery, but to have effective collaboration you have to have good discovery, which means asking the right questions.
Jeb: Ok, how do you balance the creative workload between the group and the individual? What we call the black-box dynamic where an individual isolates themselves to focus on solving a problem, we know there's value in both. There's a time for collaborative group work, and there's a time for individual, focused work. How do we balance that? Is there any formula?
Lydia: It might be a formula, I don't know that I've found it…
Jason: I feel like the black-box approach has important role and that is the perfection of the solution that has come from collaboration.
Lydia: Sure. Refining, yeah.
Jason: Yes, it's refinement. So, I mean, you ideate collaboratively, you cull collaboratively to get down to one or two things, and then you perfect individually.
Jeb: So is that where there is a disconnect sometime with clients? Where during that sort of perfecting stage, they feel disenfranchised or they have trouble recognizing the work that comes out of that? It should ideally be like taking a sketch and adding color.
Lydia: Right, it shouldn't be a surprise.
Jason: The only surprise should be "that's better than I anticipated," right? It's not out of the realm of what I was expecting.
Jeb: But how do you consistently arrive at that destination? Or maybe you just can't.
Jason: I think if the entire process goes perfectly - if discovery finds the perfect goals and purpose, if ideation comes up with enough possible, reasonable solutions, culling gets you down to the right couple, and perfecting in the “black box”…then perfecting should offer no surprises.
Jeb: Right. We're sort of like miners. Collaborating with our clients to find the diamonds in the rough. Together we’re figuring out which diamonds we really want to pay attention to.
Jeb: …and then we're giving them to the gemologist who will…
Lydia: Polish it…
Jeb: …turning them in to something you could actually put on a ring, right?
Jeb: Okay… so that pretty well defines our creative process now, at least aspirationally.
Jeb: In the past it was more, “make it look like Apple,” okay, we'll be in touch.
Lydia: It was more of a production mentality, you know, what do you want? Okay, we'll do that for you.
Jeb: We go away, we come back, “this isn't what I was talking about”, okay what are you talking about, okay, we go back and back. “This blue looks weird”, that's sort of the old process…
Jason: Absolutely. It's all the question and answering…
Jeb: It's the way a lot of agencies still work.
Lydia: It's like ping-pong...
Jeb: Right, right. So you're going from a game of ping-pong to collaborative mining.
Jason: And 80% of the problem comes from poor communication during that process and not understanding the problem, you know? And I feel like collaboration is the only way to make sure everyone's heard effectively and creates shared consciousness around what the purpose is.
Jeb: Shared vision. Like they're all seeing the same thing, the same problem. I think it's part of why purpose has to be so simple, it has to be clearly understood.
Jason: …is that it becomes something that people can't really hold in their mind as an object, otherwise it doesn't work as a filter for solutions and opportunities.
Jeb: ok, I think that’s a great place to end. Thanks guys for helping me write this blog!