It used to be said that you can have it cheap, good or fast, but you can only pick two.
Well, Sir Martin now promises all three. Because clients want it in half the time for a third of the money, but most will not settle for shit. And neither will you.
So we as creatives have a choice to make. Making bad work will kill us slowly. Cheap is a race to the bottom and commoditised creativity will be unsustainable – we’ll all be opening plant-based cafés in Bristol or working in-house. What’s left, then?
Now, traditionally, the overworked creative would argue that fast = bad. That fast = less creative. Creative people huff and puff at the quickie brief and not being given adequate room to be inspired, to think: "I’m an artist, don’t rush me."
But here’s what I think. Fast = more creative. Or, at least, it can be.
If I’ve got a hope in hell of persuading you I’m right, we need to get stuck into some serious made-up neuroscience.
If you listen to creatives, artists, musicians, comedians, designers or technologists, you see the same themes come up again and again.
First, the flow. Sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t. And the harder you try to push out a black Pencil, the more constipated your mind appears to be.
Then there’s the doubt. Running through the corridors screaming "We’ve cracked it!", only to be standing in front of the mirror in cubicle three an hour later, punching ourselves repeatedly in the face for being so blind to the epic shite-ness of our idea that only hours ago had us dreaming of riding a tidal wave of rosé down the Croisette in Cannes.
Worse still, the logic-beats-magic paradigm. Those thrilling meetings where you feel the buzz in the room, everyone loves your idea, the executive creative director gives you that proudly parental wink you so desperately needed, the chief executive tells everyone to down tools and not work the weekend, only to see your formerly perfect baby mercilessly dissected and binned over the next few days by endless talking and thinking.
What’s happening here? Well, here’s a theory. Creative thinking takes two kinds of brain activity: the creator and the editor.
The creator is childlike, emotional, meandering, carefree; it makes new connections, stumbles into magic, questions what happens when you mix two things together you were told you shouldn’t. The creator is unconcerned with consequences, whether something is on brief, could run or even makes sense. The creator is addicted to the moment of creation, the dopamine rush of "what if…?".
The editor is also an emotional beast, but it’s more judgmental, precise, analytical, critical. The editor is creative, but concerned more with consequences. Is this right? Will it work? Has it been done before? How will this make me look? Will it win at D&AD? Have I missed something? Is this the best I can do? Will my Insta blow up?
Now, real problems arise when both your creator and editor are allowed to occupy the same space at the same time.
This idea is awesome!
Hmmm, this idea is tricky…
This idea is shit!
I am shit!
Wait, this idea might be OK.
Hey, this idea is awesome!
If you work in this mode, allowing the editor to constantly pause the creator to judge, to think, you limit the quantity of ideas you create and the possibility of stumbling on something that has never been seen before. The accidents. The mutations.
Being mindful of this rollercoaster is the first step on the road to becoming a more efficient ideas machine, rather than a tortured artist awaiting inspiration.
Understanding the important roles these two brain states have to play could unlock a way of working that will get you to more creative work even faster.
And the real trick is giving your creator and your editor a separate job description. The creator’s job is to focus on quantity, ignoring all temptation to consider quality anything but an outside factor. The editor’s job is to be the curator of quality from quantity.
Training yourself to ignore your editor allows your creator to roam free, awaiting judgments and editing later in the process – be that 10 minutes later, a day or even leaning on someone else to do the editing.
There is anecdotal proof of this in such stories as the ceramics teacher in Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, who graded half of his students’ work on the weight of pots made by the end of the year and the other half on the quality of one individual piece. Lo and behold, the best work was made by those who focused on quantity.
Quick pause here to make a clear distinction between hackneyed phrases like "No idea’s a bad idea" that come from corporate brainstorming manuals. The trick here is not that no idea is bad. It’s embracing that almost all ideas are bad and releasing you from the emotional torment of giving a crap.
Most creatives I’ve worked with have their way of hacking their brains to turn off the editor and turn on the creator.
David Bowie used William S Burroughs’ cut-up technique to find new lyrics.
Ross Neil and I wandered the commercial galleries on Cork Street or browsed comic shops while we discussed a brief. Anything to stop us from thinking too hard.
And how many times have you heard a creative tell you they come up with their best ideas on the Tube, in the shower, when they’re running, as they’re falling asleep? Aaron Sorkin allegedly installed a shower in his office to this end.
These states – where it seems to flow, where you don’t know where the ideas come from, where you look back at your work and forget how you wrote that – are what we are all striving to achieve with every roll of the creative dice.
But what if you could take the chance out of it? What if you could hone the self-discipline to ignore your judgmental, emotional, editing brain and create more quantity and therefore more quality?
The industry is obsessed with processes, models and technology that will make us more efficient (read: profitable). But have we really stopped to ask if creative people are creating as efficiently as they could?
Let’s take some inspiration from the music industry, which has undergone extreme disruption that threatened the livelihood of artists in a way that we couldn’t comprehend. Mike Monday was one such artist caught up in this disruption. He’s now a coach who helps artists with business, marketing and production advice.
It used to be that you toured an album to sell an album, but now the opposite is true. Music is by and large worthless (unless you’re Adele or a Bieber). Now, it’s putting on the show where you earn your crust. As the paradigm shifted, Mike saw musicians burning out because when they weren’t on stage, or on a plane, or in a hotel room or bus, they had to be in the studio creating more material to sell the shows that made them money. Rock. Hard place.
But successful musicians seemed able to pull music out of their heads in a heartbeat. They had developed behaviours to separate judgment from creation. And Mike built a system to hack this process in the heads of his students. He called it "the splurge". Sounds gross, but it’s essentially working as fast as possible with as little care as possible.
To splurge is to allow your creator to create with no mind to quality whatsoever. The more you ignore the question of "is this good?", the better you are at splurging. The process creates a daily habit – writing a song, or a fully formed idea for a song, every day without fail in short sprints. Then, from a huge repository of ideas, his clients, using an editor mindset, curate the best ideas for further development.
What his students find is they create so much music that when they return to develop it, to edit and finish it, they often have no memory of creating it at all. His students, like me, are always, without exception, highly resistant to these methods – claiming, among other things, classic artistic sentiments. Those who take the plunge into this process are completely overwhelmed at how productive it is.
And it seems to be more effective the less time these creatives have to be creative (sound familiar?). On planes, on tour buses, in hotel rooms, in-between running an agency and being a father/husband. The less precious you are, the more throwaway the attitude, the higher the turnout, the better the quality.
Having experienced this first hand, I did what any father would do and tested this theory on my six-year-old son.
We invented a twist on the game Bananagrams (like Scrabble without a board) called Lego-grams. The rules: you scoop a cup of Lego from the pile and have to make one thing from as many of the pieces as you can.
At first, he struggled. What should I make, Daddy? Should I make a car? A plane? A truck? His editor in full force, obsessing with the outcome.
But the more we played the game, the more he realised that if he put two pieces together, then two more pieces on top of those and so on, the work would reveal itself. He found out what it wanted to be, not what he wanted it to be, and soon he was a little ideas machine and my house is a gallery of his odd inventions and my feet are scarred with the proof.
As I bristled with pride at the release of my son’s creativity, I realised that I’d seen this before. I’ve had to cope with creatives getting blocked over the years for all sorts of reasons. Briefs, stress, pressure, time. Invariably, the ones who overcame those blockages heeded my advice to "just stop thinking and start writing". I didn’t know it at the time, but I was asking them to disengage their editor and get in bed with their creator.
As disruption engulfs the industry and creativity is squeezed to breaking point, we have to fight like mad for the space to think and create game-changing work for our clients and ourselves. But we won’t win every battle – not with the powers that be offering better, faster, cheaper models. I have no doubt we, the creatives, will be the ones left to carry the can for that promise. But rather than burn out and open a chain of Wheat Is Murder cafés across the south west, let’s open our minds to the possibility that we can be faster and that could be more, not less, creative.
Also, don’t nick that Wheat Is Murder thing. That’s my nest egg.
Billy Faithfull is chief creative officer at Engine