I’m a copywriter. It’s a job where you think of ways to get people to do things. Specifically, in messages as they exist in advertising. Billboards. Print ads. Facebook ads. Google ads. Television. You get the picture. 

Over the years when I tell people what I do, one of two things happen: 1) The person asking needs a full explanation of how my job fits into the real world, or 2) They understand what I do and want to know how I do it.

But first, we need to define “Great” creative. “Great” creative is creative that gets results. Period. 

“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” – David Ogilvy 

Here’s how you get there: 

The Brief You’ve probably heard the phrase “think outside the box.” I’ve always had a problem with this phrase. I mean, sure, I get that it means crazy clever solutions. But the phrase itself implies that in order to come up with a solution, someone must literally leap out and away from a place to find it. Not true. In fact, the opposite is true. I don’t care whether you’re making an ad or selling a car, you need a solid foundation from which to solve the problem. 

Customer: Hi, I need a car. 

Salesperson: Excellent. Take this one. 

That’s not how it works. Instead the salesperson asks a battery of questions to qualify the buyer and put them in the car that’s right for them. The goal is to sell a car. 

In advertising, we do the same thing except we compile the answers to questions like—Who is the audience? What is your budget? What’s the value proposition? What is the goal of the campaign? Etc. In advertising we call this the “Creative Brief” (or “Creative Platform”) and when the answers to these questions are true and correct, they form something like a framework for the solution—a literal jumping off point for creative thinking. Believe me when I tell you that the solution to every creative problem exists within a box. Not outside of it. It’s ok that you keep saying, “think outside the box.” Just please don’t think that that’s how it actually works. There is a box and it’s made of truth and facts. The box is your friend. 

It’s Not Brain Surgery – “Oh my God that’s so clever, how did you come up with it?” 

“I morphed into a mystic trance accelerated by psychedelic mushrooms and then after a day of floating in the isolation tank, the solution appeared as I spoke in tongues.” 

That would be kind of cool, actually. But that’s not how it works. And despite what you see on TV, martinis have nothing to do with it either.

Creative problem solving is more blue collar than that. 

Thanks to the creative brief, designers and copywriters have everything they need to solve the problem, now it’s just a matter of exploring every nook and cranny inside of the box to discover it. 

Some people like brainstorming with others. I don’t mind brainstorming, as it definitely provides a range of perspectives and it’s good to hear at the front of the process. And yes, sometimes the best solutions do come from this exercise. But you never know until you explore as much of the box as possible. Here’s what I do: 

  1. Devour the brief and ask even more questions. 
  2. Research the industry and market. 
  3. Research the target audience.
  4. Devour the brief again. 
  5. Ask more questions. 
  6. Discover what kinds of messages are most effective to the audience. 
  7. Deconstruct the product or service to see what really matters most. 
  8. Walk away and do something totally different. Don’t even think about the problem. Go fishing. 

And that’s it. That’s how you do it. Or rather, that’s how I do it. And I know plenty of other creative people who have similar processes. This process almost always results in a range of solid ideas, from which I pick 3-4 to refine and present. 

But walking away is hard. 

Have you ever tried not thinking about a thing? Let’s say you’re falling in love—you think about the girl constantly. You can’t get her out of your mind. You’re freaking obsessed … Ok that’s a really bad example, love plays by its own rules and you can’t contain it. Instead, let’s say you’re studying for a test. You take great notes, you read the texts, you cram as much information as you can fit into your brain so that you will pass. But if you don’t walk away, you’ll only stress yourself out. At some point you have to let go and trust that you’ve done everything you can to set yourself up for success. And on test day, assuming you’ve been studying accurate information, you almost always do well. As the father of teenagers in an American education system that is chock full of flaws, I know firsthand that stress negatively affects testing. 

The same is true of creative problem solving. Except the tough part is walking away. It sounds too passive. Too simple. But it works. Invariably, my best ideas have come while doing routine things after following the process listed above—and never while stressing over trying to solve the problem. 

Giving your mind a break after working hard to learn about a thing is a little like eating a good meal. The goal of the meal is to provide sustenance—to literally sustain you with nourishment so that you can keep living. And as soon as you take that first bite you’re beginning the digestive process. And the front of the process is but a small part. Sure, it tastes great and it’s enjoyable (as is digesting a good creative brief), but the goal of consuming food isn’t just for how it tastes. The goal is to nourish the body. And to do that the food must work its way through the body as the body takes what it needs and leaves the rest. And you don’t think about any of this beyond mastication. The body just does its thing. 

The same is true of your subliminal mind after you’ve been thinking hard about a thing. 

Trust in the process, kids. It won’t steer you wrong. 

Not Everything is High Creative – When I first got into advertising, I wanted to do Super Bowl commercials. I’m pretty sure we all do. However, I learned real quick that only like .0001% of all creative people get to do ads that cost millions of dollars to make and even more to air. 

My first paying gig was to create a series of :30 second radio spots for a local convenience store. I attacked this project like it was the Super Bowl. And the result was pretty dang good. The ads were funny and each touched on a specific value prop. And they got people talking. But it wasn’t high creative. 

The most effective commercial work I’ve done was for Lexus. Back when they were rolling out a new model. We did direct mail, print, and even a couple of live events. Sold every car the local dealer had allocated to them and the campaign won a ton of awards. People called me “talented.” But it wasn’t high creative. 

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you that copywriters and designers want to flex their creative muscles, but we have a job to do. And that job is to sell stuff, to convince and convert, to get people to pay attention long enough to remember something. Not every solution requires an idea plucked from Plato’s beard. Some just need to be right. And right is sometimes straightforward. The trick, of course, is knowing when the solution appears so that you don’t needlessly spin your wheels. 

Get Humble – When I look back through my portfolio and think about the results of the work, I can see that 99% of what’s in there was extremely effective. But the reason it worked had very little to do with me—it took a lot of talented people working to a common end. From the AE who draws up the essential creative brief, to the media planner and buyers, to the production teams, it’s important to remember that you’re simply part of the solution. And then act like you respect this idea. 

Being a creative person can sometimes go to your head. 



Light and Darkness

Jim Mitchem

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