Fish Early on in my advertising career, I remember when a new project would come down the pipe and my colleagues would run to the nearest design annual for “inspiration.” I didn’t do it for the same reason I stopped reading Hemingway – when I read Hemingway, I start writing like him. Or at least seem to try. To me, influence is more of a liability to true creativity than it is an asset.

This post is out to change how you think of yourself in terms of being a ‘creative’ person. And no, your hair style, body piercings and tattoos don't make you any more creative than my (dead) grandmother. To prove this, let’s start with basic definitions of words.

Create: 1: to bring into existence <God created the heaven and the earth — Genesis 1:1 (Authorized Version) 2 a: to invest with a new form, office, or rank <was created a lieutenant> b: to produce or bring about by a course of action or behavior <her arrival created a terrible fuss> <create new jobs> 3: cause, occasion <famine creates high food prices> 4 a: to produce through imaginative skill <create a painting> b: design <creates dresses>

Sure, this is just the Merriam Webster dictionary, but I’m writing this post, and by God that’s the first link in google when I look for definitions – so shoot me. Anyway, focus on the #1 definition for a second: “To bring into existence.” Or, to make something totally original or to conjure an idea that’s never been conjured before. They use the example of God – for good reason, since only a God can create something totally original. I think what most of us consider ourselves to be is actually definition #4. Number Four!

Now let’s look at what it means ‘to be’ Creative (as per MW). 

Creative: 1: marked by the ability or power to create: given to creating <the creative impulse> 2: having the quality of something created rather than imitated: imaginative <the creative arts> 3: managed so as to get around legal or conventional limits <creative financing>; also: deceptively arranged so as to conceal or defraud <creative accounting>

Most people in advertising believe they’re 'creative.' If you do, it's ok. Even though it's wrong, the incorrect nomenclature is so embedded in our culture that I don’t think it will ever change. However, I also don’t believe humans are capable of true creativity. And neither should you.

One of the most important books I’ve read which helped me become a serviceable copywriter is Plato’s Republic. Without diving too deep into Plato’s Theory of Forms, just know this – you can’t invent a chair, only a new kind of a chair based on the universal idea (or form) of a chair. When I say chair, you think about the universal idea of a chair, but I guarantee you we're not thinking about the exact same kind of chair. Which makes a chair less of a thing, and more of an idea.  And get this, every word you know has a form attached to it. 

Leo Burnett once said, “The secret of all effective advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships.”

What Burnett was really saying is that no one is creative – and no one in advertising should aspire to ‘be creative.’ Think about it this way – if you indeed create a new word, how the hell is that going to resonate with your audience if they don’t know the meaning of the word to begin with? It won’t. It will fail. People want familiar. Or at least definable. And anything that is defined is already discovered and therefore neither original nor ‘creative.’

As a copywriter, I’m often asked to string together words and phrases that resonate with a client’s target audience. People call this ability ‘creative.’ I don’t.  I’m just a guy who knows how to arrange familiar ideas to make people think differently about something. Which makes the whole 'think outside of the box' mantra as ridiculous as the people who use it. But that's another post. 

Read the next post in this series, 'You're not Creative Deal with it Part 2' - and why what we do is more innovative, than creative. 


Jim Mitchem

Knowing Your Target Audience
Art & Copy

Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.