A WEE BIT O’ BIO
Fresh out of Journalism school, I landed a job at a small-town weekly: Reporter, Photographer, Proofreader and Layout Artist. I was their one and only employee, and, because I was so clueless, it took me a full week to realize how truly horrible it was to work there. After that, it took me ten minutes to resign and another ten workdays to work off my official two weeks’ notice. My news career was shorter than the lifespan of a fruit fly.
The deciding factor wasn’t so much the salary, which was pathetic, or the hours, which were all-consuming, or the work, which was the opposite of creative in a church bake sale kind of way. It was the Y-key on the keyboard I had to use. If I hit it wrong, it would pop off and bounce away. Seeing as my office was also the storage room, this meant all kinds of lost time searching amidst boxes of hoarded crap.
What would you do? I upped stakes and went back to school, this time for real: the Alberta College of Art and Design, one of Canada’s top four, where I majored in Visual Communications and minored in Painting.
Skip ahead thirty-some years and I’m now what is most accurately described as a Freelance Designer/Illustrator/Writer/Editor/
I come by the multi-slash-title honestly. I earned my stripes in the ad agency world, starting out as an illustrator who became an Illustrator/
Designer, who was promoted up through the ranks to Senior Art Director. Along the way, editing was added to my job description, then copywriting, then market analysis, and then, as punishment for my sins, I was made Creative Director.
THE COMPLEAT SKILL-SET, AT A GLANCE:
• Award-winning Designer
• Award-winning Illustrator
• Accomplished Copywriter
• Prolific Conceptualizer
• Levelheaded Administrator
• Insightful Strategist
• Competent, Efficient Production Artist
• Fluent in Microsoft Word, Corel Painter 11 and the CS6 versions
of Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Bridge and Acrobat
• Marginally proficient with CS6 Dreamweaver
(I used it to build this site.)
Decision-making is emotional. Persuasive communication must therefore trigger an emotional response. Facts, logic and reason don’t signify and consciousness only enters into the deal after the fact, to justify choices that have already been made.
Best practice: determine what you’re going say, who you’re going to say it to and the best way to say it before communicating anything.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS — A PHYSIOLOGICAL APPROACH
The Thinking Behind the Thinking
People have three brains, one nestled inside another, like Russian dolls.
Innermost is the reptilian brain. It controls autonomic functions (heartbeat etc.) and monitors incoming sensory stimuli on a fight or flight basis, responding, as necessary, to anything threatening, edible or sexually desirable.
The next layer, the paleomammalian brain, a.k.a. the limbic system, is the seat of emotion, where attachments and animosities are formed. It has no language or logic, but it can distinguish friend from foe with an astonishing degree of accuracy. In prehistory, it provided an indispensible survival skill. In the modern day world of commerce, on top of everything else, it determines which brands you’re partial to.
All these calculations are all performed without any input whatsoever from the neocortex — the conscious, rational, outermost layer. It steps in at the very end, when everything’s all figured out, to provide rationale and, ultimately, take credit.
Fact vs. Feeling
Despite what your conscious brain thinks, when it comes to nuanced distinctions of love and hate, your limbic system calls the shots. It’s the actual arena in which figurative hearts and minds are won. It cannot, however, be appealed to by rational argument. It’s too busy monitoring body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and a gazillion other pre-conscious data streams to care about anything as mundane as the facts. All it responds to is emotion.
Comedy gets through. So does tragedy. Pretty much anything that generates an authentic response does. Mood music and titillation help, but one size does not fit all. That’s the problem. People rarely respond to the same stimuli in the same fashion.
However, as long as an acceptable portion of your target audience ends up behaving the way you want them to, close enough is good enough.
Signal vs. Static
The mediasphere is a vast labyrinth, full of noise. Messages go out and never come back. To stand any sort of chance, the ones you send must be properly prepared, for the way is hard and fraught with peril.
First, your message must find its way through the confusion and be noticed by the right person. Then, it has to sneak past that person’s bullshit detectors, into the cup cradle of their emotional unconscious and, somehow, forge an indelible impression.
The Creative Brief
There’s no substitute for savvy reconnaissance and that’s where the creative brief comes in. It boils mountains of research, understanding and intuition down to a handful of well-reasoned assertions, articulating things like: brand character, target audience, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It defines the single-minded proposition and truthfully substantiates that proposition. It spells out the overall objectives, the key responses and the call to action.
Having all these issues clarified and agreed upon before a project begins gives everyone, clients and creative people alike, a roadmap to follow. It manages expectations and, by and large, eliminates disappointments.
When due diligence is done, it all comes down to three things: what to say, who to say it to and the best way to say it.
Idea generation is a process. It starts with information gathering and continues on through brainstorming, assessment, refinement and implementation. It is, however, a random beast, which rarely, if ever, follows the same path.
CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT — ELEVEN FLAMING HOOPS
The brief might point the way, but getting there requires a full measure of effort. Generally speaking, the process can be broken down into eleven or so consecutive (or not) steps. Events, however, as they transpire, are rarely ever that orderly.
Before anything, projects get time-lined — segmented into subtasks, worked back from optimal delivery dates and scheduled according to overall workflow.
One must absorb as much relevant information as possible. This means internalizing every aspect of the brief and learning absolutely everything in regards to that particular product or service, the people involved, the business and the industry in question.
It’s all grist for the mill and there’s no shortcut. Study is the only sure-fire cure for creative block.
Everything simmers away on your brain’s back burner till the ingredients meld together into something infinitely tastier than the sum of its parts. Hours — days — can go by, but even in the most deadline-driven, do-or-die situation, genuinely exceptional ideas take time to prepare.
Sometimes, it just comes to you. You’ll be tripping along, minding your own affairs, when, out of nowhere, a full-blown idea just pops into your head. These are rare and precious events.
Leave your critical thinking at the door. The intent is to generate as many ideas as possible — good, bad or indifferent — in the shortest measure of time.
It’s easier with another equally skilled participant. One person’s idea gives rise to another’s and so it goes, back and forth like Ping-Pong.
Inevitably, somewhere along the way, conceptual lightning strikes. Most times, however, when it does, it’s in such a fragmentary state, it’s not instantly recognizable.
This is where critical thinking comes in. Ruthless clarity is required. Rational, informed decisions must be made. Good ideas — ones that answer the brief at the same time as promising genuine emotive appeal — must be identified while still in their larval state. Everything else falls by the wayside.
Select ideas are fleshed out — the chosen few — and the initial client presentation is assembled. Most often, copy and sketches are enough. Other times, depending on a concept’s complexity, or a decision-maker’s inability to visualize, a fully articulated working model might be required.
8. Dog & Pony Shows
Client meetings can happen anywhere — around some table somewhere or, just as easily, via Skype in separate time zones. The important thing isn’t how or where they occur, it’s achieving consensus. Do the words and pictures communicate what they’re supposed to? Do the various pieces achieve the objectives laid out in the creative brief? And, amid the options, is there one standout solution — an idea that’s hands-down better than the rest?
Everything is fact-checked, proofed and made one-hundred-percent correct in every respect. Production only goes ahead when the winning concept is all shined up in its Sunday best and everything is approved.
When people say ‘one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,’ this is the sweat they’re talking about, with some blood and tears thrown in for good measure.
Most often, copywriting happens first. It’s the rhythm track — the one that gets laid down first. That’s the path of least resistance. Other times, something else leads the way. It’s an organic process. When things are allowed to progress in an unforced manner, it makes for an infinitely more satisfying solution.
In the unlikely event that there is no existing corporate identity (logo, letterhead, &c.), building one that answers the creative brief should happen before anything else. However, this sort of thing is a major undertaking in its own right and generally a stand-alone project. It’s rare that it would ever be part of something else.
Why would you not measure the effectiveness of your communications?
The first thing to do is the easiest. Monitor your website’s analytics, before, during and after your message goes out, to see if there’s a change.
At the same time, count customers. Start pre-message, to give yourself a benchmark, and continue on throughout. If visits increase, things are working. You might also wish to employ the arcane powers of double entry bookkeeping. Compare revenues pre and post to provide another layer of information.
It’s also a good idea to have some kind of feedback mechanism. Ask and ye shall receive. Talk to people. They will, in no uncertain terms, tell you what they think. One carefully worded survey, in whatever medium, can yield oceans of insight.
You could also go totally old school and cross-reference postal codes with census data to generate a qualified mailing list. You could then send out questionnaires to every household, with enough incentive to encourage response. Or, you could hire a call center to phone and play twenty questions with your target audience.
The thing is, you have to do something. Without measuring, you won't have a clue if things are working or not.
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”
— Blaise Pascal
— The man, the legend, the haircut in search of a handshake