No matter what stage you’re at in your creative career, whether you’re a beginner or an art director, there will be times when you’re working on a new project and campaign where you feel like, if you’ll pardon the word, shit.
In fact, there’s a cycle to the feeling. First, you feel awesome. You’ve come up with an idea that you’re sure is the best thing ever, one that’s certain to pick up lots of shiny and coveted D&AD pencils. Then the doubt creeps in, you realise that actually your killer idea for a new ad is in fact incredibly tricky to pull off. This doubt then sends you into a spiral where you realise that not only is your idea shit, but you are shit, too. [Disclaimer: none of you are shit.
Sound familiar? If so, don’t panic. Everyone has doubts in their work at some time or another. In fact, this feeling of doubt is a good thing. “Embrace it!” says Alice Tonge, the first female creative head of 4creative, during her talk at D&AD Festival 2019. “It means you’re trying to come up with something original.”
Of course, coming up with something original is easier said than done. But to help you work through those feelings of first draft despair, where you realise that your initial idea isn’t exactly all that, Tonge is on hand to share her hard-won advice. Her words of wisdom will help you get out of a creative rut and power through those first draft woes.
01 – Do the opposite of the obvious
All too often a project will come along that has a lot of no-brainer possibilities. For Tonge and the team at 4creative, this was definitely the case when they were tasked with creating a video advert for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics to air on Channel 4. There are lots of associated images of the winter Olympics it couldhave used, bobsleighs and snow and the like, but instead they found an eye-catching new angle with the anthem Gay Mountain.
Created in response to Russia’s restrictive legislations against LBGT people, this pop banger parodies the Russian national anthem to get across its inclusive message. The sideways look at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics paid off. Gay Mountain was a viral smash, and it was accompanied by a rainbow coloured rebrand of the Channel 4 ident graphics. It’s also a prime example of how digging deeper and finding a unique angle can yield incredible results.
02. Go commando!
Keep your pants on, Tonge means this metaphorically. By ‘going commando’ she means, create your own brief. While this might not be a possibility with every single creative commission you find yourself involved with, it’s one to keep in mind when you have slightly more free reign. Tonge readily admits that she’s fortunate to work with Channel 4 because “diversity is stitched into the very fabric of the channel”.
The 100 years and Counting campaign is a prime example of how Tonge and her team went commando to do their own thing. Designed to celebrate 100 years of women’s votes, this powerful video features footage of women doing all the things that the patriarchy has told them they can’t. It’s definitely a project that taps into Tonge’s viewpoint on female empowerment. “There aren’t enough female leaders out there,” shes says. “There should be more.”
So if you’re frustrated with a brief, think to yourself, what would I create if I had the chance to make anything? It’s a great way of generating ideas, and you might be surprised where they lead your project.
03. Fail harder
“What are you more afraid of, fucking up or making boring work?” It’s a strong question, but one that’s sure to resonate when your stuck in the doldrums of a tedious project. To save yourself getting to this point, you need to stop being afraid of failing. In fact, the harder you fail, the better your work will become.
While this might sound like an inspirational quote from the corporate end of the spectrum, the example Tonge uses to illustrate this point is amazing. As part of a push to include alternative voices on Channel 4, the 4creative team reached out to people with Tourette syndrome and cerebral palsy to provide announcement voice overs to idents for prime-time shows. However this idea only struck once other angles had failed, proving that there’s always a good idea around the corner once you get the duds out of the way.
04. Keep on crafting
“Even when you think it’s perfect, keep on going,” says Tonge. This approach to a project, where you refine it and refine it, can produce work the likes of which you’ve never seen. Or, to put it another way, “an idea without craft is nothing,” says Tonge.
Case in point is the campaign 4creative made for The Grand National, which focused on the jockeys instead of the horses. Titled ‘The Original Extreme Sport’, this television spot used special cameras to film jockeys like never before, and uncover the people behind the riders. In fact the characterful portrait of one female jockey proved so moving that it won the 2013 Photographic Portraiture Prize. As Tonge points out, “just because it’s an ad doesn’t mean it can’t be art”.
05. Think bigger than the brief
Going above and beyond what’s expected is a sure-fire way to smash a campaign. You just need to tune into the message of what you’re trying to achieve and go from there.
In the case of the E4 Shutdown, Tonge and the team fought hard to see that E4 was effectively deactivated for the 2015 general election as part of a bid to get young people to vote. Its thinking was that if the channel wasn’t there to distract younger voters, they would be more likely to make their voices heard.
And if all these tips sound a bit out of reach, Tonge has a piece of advice for creatives struggling with their resources. “Pull favours and be nice to people!” Sounds simple, but Tonge believes that a bit of kindness and a DIY attitude can produce some memorable work affordably.