How advertising's big ideas are born

The advertising academics W Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison asked more than 300 industry creatives what their creative process looked like. Here, they tell Campaign readers what they learnt from the exercise.

Is it possible that those of us in advertising spend too much time focusing on the end products of our work and not enough on the process that gets us there? After all, isn't creativity our most valuable resource - our actual "craft?" The talented art directors, writers and creative directors who deliver the big ideas every day are remarkable people. We expect them to invent, to reimagine, to enliven and to charm - pleasing clients and persuading consumers every day, on demand.

As professors of advertising, we perform the dual roles of helping develop young talent and exploring our discipline through research. One of the most exciting (yet overlooked) areas in the advertising scholarship is the subject of creativity. Despite all of the challenges that this topic presents as an unobservable phenomenon, we find it fascinating. As we work to discover more about it, we have to think, well, creatively to develop methodologies that will yield the richest insights.

To try to understand the creative process in advertising is to try to capture the ephemeral. An individual's process is intensely personal and can be (as we learned) quite challenging to explain to someone else, particularly when it isn't anything one ever expected to try to do. When asked to share their understanding of how they think and where their ideas come from, even the most seasoned creative director can seem surprised, maybe even a little intimidated, by the question.

Whenever we discussed this research project, we'd often say "we need to get a real sense of what the process looks like" or use other words to that effect. And then it occurred to us that an actual picture of the process might be an amazing form of data. The use of "enduring visual products" as a means of explaining experiences that are difficult to put into words is well established in art therapy literature, so we borrowed the technique and adapted it to try to capture the essence of the creative process in advertising.

We asked more than 300 creative professionals this question: What does your creative process look like?

As one creative director told us, visualising his own creative process for us was "fun and harder than I thought". Another confessed that the assignment we'd developed caused "vague anxiety". But even though most of the participants found it challenging to answer our question, the rather unusual method for doing so held a special appeal. (It's nice when we can convince anyone to think of participation in academic research as "fun".)

So, what did we learn from the more than 80 drawings that were returned to us? So much that we wrote a book about it. But one of the most important insights that emerged from this research is this one: art directors, writers and creative directors possess a keen understanding of how their own minds work and adapt their thinking approaches to meet the demands of each project they face.

Just as a workman knows his tools, a musician must know his instrument. A great violinist can perform a solo concerto flawlessly, but she must also possess a keen sense for properly tuning her violin and how it works, from pegbox to chinrest. The investment of so much time and energy breeds an intimate familiarity; a sharpened skillset that separates the player from the virtuoso. It makes sense that expertise is born of experience. Everything we do presents an opportunity to learn something and perhaps to better understand ourselves as well.

This idea is particularly relevant to the day-to-day work of the creative professional. For these people, the instrument is the mind. If it's your job to make ideas, it's important to understand as much as you can about how your brain works and how to properly tune it for optimal performance. With experience, ad creatives gradually develop this understanding. They're always learning about how their own minds work. It's a constant revelation. The funny thing is, most of them don't think about any of this very much. It's all just part of the job, they say.

In our new book, The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising's Big Ideas Are Born, we connect the advertising creative professional's unique brand of self-awareness with the concept of metacognition, or the theory that we can leverage our own understanding of how we think and mentally supervise the achievement of cognitive goals. The theory is about 30 years old, but the illustrations we feature in the book lend it great support. It's clear that some amazing careers have been built on that foundation.

Of course, every drawing in the book reveals an individual's unique perspective on the creative process. Like fingerprints, no two are alike. Some make broad philosophical statements about finding the idea. Others show us detailed steps taken to get there. The drawings we share with you in this preview represent a sample of intriguing responses to the same question: What does your creative process look like?

For our part, we'll never see advertising the same way again.

Illustrations from The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising's Big Ideas Are Born by W Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison.

Published by How Books, Cincinnati.


Co-chief creative officers, Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, Canada

Insights: Team players succeed. They appreciate the synergy that is created when people with different expertise and perspectives work at the same table. They want to find solutions that will make everyone proud to be part of the process.


Senior vice-president and creative director, The Martin Agency, Richmond, Virginia

Insights: Creative people are explorers by nature. They draw inspiration from everything around them. They're convinced that big ideas come from all the little details. Every experience can inform the craft.


Group creative director, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles, California

Insights: One must stock the pond to keep the fishing good. Feed your head and it will work harder for you. The fly fisherman is a metaphor for the importance of technique and precision.


Co-founder and executive creative director, The Jupiter Drawing Room, Cape Town, South Africa

Insights: The abiding belief that a good idea will come can sustain you. Try to enjoy the wait. Do more listening than talking and you get smarter, faster. Tenacity is a virtue.


Chief creative officer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York


Managing partner and executive creative director, mcgarrybowen, New York

Insights: Experienced creatives bring an elaborate repertoire of approaches to every project. They are confident in the way they work and they trust the process they've developed over time. They've seen it all and taken notes.