Inside every advertising “creative” is a complex skeleton cobbled together from a series of ambitious, but ultimately fractured career plans. We are deluded schizophrenics who in the heat of the moment believe we are the masters of all creative trades. Oops, maybe I’m not supposed to reveal that. The copywriter who is a closet Trent Reznor who knows exactly when a track “needs more timpani.” The creative director with the self-imagined eye of Scorsese who stops the shoot and suggests we “go handheld to give it a more documentary feel.”
Advertising has a bittersweet relationship with inspiration. It demands you operate in a state of constant inspiration buzz. Yet it damns you if your direct influence shows too much. You have to be honest with yourself. Did you swipe everything about your ad from something you saw online? Is your Tumblr showing? Should your Pinterest board get the art direction credit? Or did you take the influence and use it in service of a truly original idea.
For example, when you’re brainstorming a television commercial, it’s natural to think in film references. “Yeah, it’s gonna feel like the running montage in Forrest Gump.” Feeling like a Forrest Gump montage and just being a straight rip-off are two different things. Some creatives are so in love with particular filmmakers that they want to just live vicariously through their commercial as that director. If you are so inspired by a film that it explicitly informs the content of your commercial, you basically just need to hire that director. Think about how many ‘Wes Anderson style’ commercials you’ve seen. Wes didn’t direct all of those.
The worst offense to me is copying another piece of advertising. The kind of lazy thinking that leads to statements like “Let’s put our product in a white world and make it feel like an Apple commercial.” Or “Let’s do a social response campaign like Old Spice.” This kind of thinking is obsessed with formats. A big problem these days is that as our media landscape has fractured our attention and multiplied our screens. Formats are not solutions. Formats are creative junk food. All great advertising starts with a unique idea. An idea is something that doesn’t look or sound like anything. A truly great idea can be executed in a thousand different ways. If your ad lives or dies on a certain aesthetic sensibility, you probably need to rethink the idea.
Take Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Epic Splits for Volvo. That was a weirdly specific thought on how to highlight the precision steering of large trucks. It’s a specific benefit, and there are 100 different ways you could bring that benefit to life. The Volvo commercial presented one specific way to illustrate the benefit. The execution served the idea. Now that the Van Damme spot exists, you can feel the imitators circling the blood in the water. Stealing little pieces from the format of the execution. Reducing it to tags. Celebrity. Product benefit. Stunt. Enya. These surface takeaways will be stolen and executed in small and unmemorable ways. It’s better to start from your own original thought.
In advertising, it pays to be the first one to have a weirdly specific idea and execution. One that comes out of nowhere, yet that illustrates some bigger thing we’ve all been thinking about. Or should be thinking about. Like Nike’s Jogger*.1 spot a few years ago. In the commercial an out of shape kid runs earnestly, as a voiceover delivers an inspiring man- ifesto about how greatness is within the grasp of anyone. That’s a big idea. And the impact of the ad was huge. Now there is a temptation for brands to use a similar thought. Do you risk creating something whose unoriginality can be recognised? Piggyback- ing on the big bang of the Nike spot. The idea has been cleanly and iconicly presented to culture. Imita- tion won’t recapture the impact of a statement that’s already affected us.
Now that advertising has officially grown up past the 30-second commercial and lavish print campaign, you have the temptation to steal from many different arenas now. You can steal, or, ahem, repurpose a GPS-enabled idea or the weird little app you saw at your friend’s experimental art show. Technology is open source and stealable, but there is still a laziness in simply copying and pasting a format and slapping a logo on it. Jay Z’s Decoded campaign delivered an amazing, never-been-seen before interactive experience. Do you execute a something similar for the brand you’re working on? It’s tempting to see success and subconsciously walk in the same direction.
It’s good to be inspired. You need constant inspiration when you’re trying to be creative on a deadline. The Internet has made it easy to live in a kind of 24/7 inspiration stew. But this is too easy.
Finding stuff that compels us to tap a ‘like’ button isn’t going deep enough. Go out and live life. See art in person. Watch films. Take random walks. Have conversations and arguments. Do things that challenge you and push your thinking in directions only you can go.
These days with people getting hired off the backs of really well curated Tumblrs, I think it’s especially important to have outside inspiration. You don’t want people who are going to simply suggest the meme-de-jour on every brief they touch. You want people who have their own interests, who make their own stuff, who have weird hobbies. You want people who make things on their own and hey, maybe some of that you can use on a brief one day.
It’s kind of like the whole 1+1=3 thing. If you are cross-pollinating your inspiration, ask yourself: is the result creating something new? Or are you just using an ad to write a love letter to your favorite movie scene? There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to wield it alongside your own original thoughts. I’ve been guilty of being too on the nose with my influences before. Sometimes it happens subconsciously, or you just run out of time and didn’t have the chance to evolve your thinking. But those near-copy imitation campaigns are never satisfying. They feel more like a presentation or a mood board, rather than the truly unique idea that could have been brought to life.