Big Ideas

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My Creative Process: How I get from point zero to a valuable idea

Let’s be honest about creativity – nobody has the corner on it.  I sure don’t.  

While I firmly believe in process — and I know at a scientific level that process assures great projects come to life —that creative spark that marks my work is hard to pin down.  

I’ll be double honest, I wonder how it happens sometimes myself.  For instance, Eddie, a great guy in the finance industry with huge success under his belt came to me to do videos.  I didn’t have a great idea for him for a week and a half, then the idea just came.  In fact, it was 3 videos playing in my head almost simultaneously and I couldn’t write my ideas as fast as my brain was revealing them.  

Other times, I literally have the final video idea locked and loaded instantly in the middle of a discovery meeting.  Like, bang!  There it is.  And I can sell it to them right there and land that plane like an ace. 

So let me reveal some things about how I end up with the ideas that may help you find your own.  

First, revelation — or the reveal — takes a moment of inspiration.  There are days where it is instant.  There are times where I have to walk away from a project for minutes, hours, days, and on a rare occasion, weeks, in order to give myself time to pop.  I think I’m a broken toaster — the bread will pop out toasted just right but you’ll never know when to be standing there to get it. The timer is busted.  What I know about revelation is that if you feel negative pressure, anxiety about a script or early concept, you better back off.  Revelation is usually reserved for calm. 

It may be more like when you’re chasing a puppy that got loose.  Yelling and chasing make the dog run.  Revelation runs when you angrily chase it.  Revelation comes after you play and wear the pup out a bit and then you get into a play groove with it. Then it’s all, “Wow, I’ve got a great dog!” and a lovefest, and yeah… you have your idea. 

For me, music and setting matter.  I like my office a lot so that setting can be deceiving.  Let’s talk about non-office use of space.  Many times a project doesn’t come alive in my mind’s eye until I’ve got funk or jazz on.  Yes, I’m an old soul.  I need 70’s inspired funk, classic John Coltrane, or maybe some NOLA like Kermit Ruffins, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, or Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews to get my energy flowing in the right creative direction.  I often pair that with either a long walk or maybe a fine red wine outdoors by the pool.  Socrates claimed that leisure was required for philosophers to think into their “work”.  Maybe he was on to something.  

Another key to my creative connection with projects is mastery of the matter.  If I don’t understand a product and the consumer in any given instance then I’m doomed to fail.  No matter if the project is a video or a commercial for a product or perhaps an awareness documentary about a social issue, my expert understanding is vital.  Now, when working with something that takes decades of study — like Ph.D. level engineers who teach manufacturing concepts — the idea mastery is about the generalities of what they educate about, why they educate, the audience who benefits, and why they benefit.  If I can masterfully nail down those truths then I can create compelling content to honor those constituents.  

A while ago, Kodak came to me to produce a talking headpiece on a new technology.  An old white guy was going to talk about ohms of resistivity blah blah blah to people who would understand.   Even so, I was instantly confident that although they would understand, they also wouldn’t give a rat’s ass (which in these parts of the world is not worth much).  I asked them to take a chance on a different idea and it made them very uncomfortable.  I had two internal champions there who fought for me to be able to give it a go and the result was a video where an actor played a person who was the avatar of the end-user (another engineer who would spec the product in designs).  We had the actor talk about his childhood self and how this new material helps “40-year-old-me” live his childhood passions out at work.  It was creative, VERY different for the industry, and HIGHLY effective. Where did I get that idea?

I remember the conversation. We were in a boardroom, it was three Kodakers and me.  I heard them talk about the “client avatar” at length.  It was predominantly 30-45-year-old white males with 4-year bachelor and master’s degrees who, in their spare time, liked cars, sports, beer, and video games, had kids, wives, and a few too many pounds to fit in their old baseball uniforms from high school. These guys absolutely have had enough of older white dudes droning on about tech stats.  They want to know what the product does, why it works, why it will set them apart in their careers, and that kinda stuff.  They want to know WIIFM! (What’s In It For Me?)

What can Kodak promise them that would be honest and engaging?  It’s not a raise — they can’t promise that. It’s not really even honest to promise that it will affect their bottom line until they run numbers for the client project at hand.  It is true that they may find satisfaction and fulfillment by applying this product creatively.  That was my in, and I saw it fast.  

I felt what the engineers felt. As I listened in my mind’s eye to the talking head video.  I knew they’d tune out.  I knew it’d be forgotten.  I knew that they’d watch someone like themselves with a space helmet being drawn on, kind of like how Jim Carey did with steam on the mirror in the movie, The Truman Show.  I knew name-dropping the original Gameboy was on point.  I didn’t have to dig, I knew this.  

Now, at that time, I was just younger than their target demo but close enough to naturally connect to the needs of the audience.  That being said, I find that I can connect the dots of emotional adoption of a story pretty quickly and I believe it’s due in part to being a student of life.  

Consider the great music video directors of our times.  Most are immersed in the culture they direct.  A hip-hop director of note is most typically of hip-hop life.  Dress, electronics, music choices, car affinities — all of it aligns.  When they are tasked with a new music video, they know their audience because they live and love that audience.  Same for country or any other genre.  Movies, TV, and the like are typically similar truths.  

Screenwriters and authors are told by gurus of the same industry to “write what you know”.  This seems right to me.  You go to your zone of power.  

How then do you become a generalist for creative pursuits?  

Well, for one, I’m not sure you should be a generalist.  If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not a generalist.  My own best work is dramatic, emotive narratives or advertising work that is more times than not a service product, even more often a B2B service. I have yet to have Redbull call me for a gig.  Why?  Well, I’m not an X-Games type of guy and there is a glut of creatives for that market already AND, I’m not that guy so why would I expect that call?  I shouldn’t.  

Even so, I’ve worked with first responders, manufacturers, private colleges, public colleges, internationally-known rappers, internationally-known leadership gurus, tech software startups, homeless shelters, and more.  Most of these are award-winning works, too.  Where do the ideas come from for all of these? 

A few thoughts on this:

  1. Teams.  I cannot take all or even most of the credit for any particular work.  Large groups of people work together to make these things happen and everyone has creative input in some way.  But, the genesis of a good project is the idea and a core of trusted collaborators is critical.  I turn to John, Andrew, Jimmy, Jan, Dave, other Dave, Jonas, Aaron, Fred, Bruce, Chaz, Bart, Clay, and more for help in a million ways. All of them are either sounding boards or even creative partners. To this point, I will tell you that creativity in a void, where you are your own muse, is both lonely and inefficient.  It is also less fun.  Those who run together go farther.  
  2. Theft.  They say the greatest form of creative flattery is conceptual theft.  Yep. It’s not that anyone in the “biz” is actually plagiarized — that’s uncool. We do inspire each other and help move the whole industry forward as we show our best work and learn from each other’s story styles. You need to watch everything enough to understand how someone tells their stories.  You don’t have to binge an 87-episode series to understand it.  One episode is often enough, maybe even too much.  I can get the style of The Office in about 10 minutes.  Learn fast, remember the structure and the feeling of the work (Let me repeat that… STRUCTURE and FEELING). Pocket it for future applications.  
  3. Be a student of life.  In high school, I took a course called, Understanding the Times.  I went to a private Christian college prep school and in the senior year, we did four quarters on the prevailing worldviews found in modern humanity. We dissected belief systems.  We observed behaviors and told ourselves stories about why people did what they did, said what they said, and believed what they believed.  Later, in college, I got one of my undergraduate degrees in Economics.  I loved macro econ for how it told stories about human behavior.  How anyone could be an economist and a socialist at the same time is still beyond me after that work — and oddly it was taught by a socialist — truly bizarre. But I digress.  The bottom line in both of those areas of study is that people will not do what is rational. That’s a lie. They do what they are incentivized to do and short-term incentive always (almost always) wins. There is a very big difference between rational behavior in the long run and rational behavior in the short run.  That difference informs EVERY creative work I do.

In advertising, we talk a great deal about our “call to action”.  We want to move people to do something that we’re asking them for — the usual goal is a financial transaction, is it not?  What if your ask works against the incentives inherent in your ideal customer’s life?  What if, in the opposite way, your ask promotes high payoff behaviors that align with their incentives?  You’ll get the attention you were seeking.  

So, ask yourself, how does my ideal customer actually live?  Not, what do they want — you’re too early for that — just, what is their life like?  Who matters to them?  What matters to them?  Why?  How can you loop what matters MOST to them into a conversation about what you’re trying to ask of them? 

Great advertisers are noticed annually (except for 2021 where this generally failed) during the Superbowl.  Think about how the task at hand is going to tie your product to the incentives structure within the lives of a broad and diverse football audience. Some go broad scope and use patriotic theming to appeal to as many people as possible — my favorite ever was Dodge’s “And God Made a Farmer” using the words of Paul Harvey.  Some mine into smaller audiences.  Consider the use of quirk, like Skittles has done with talking sandwiches.  Skittles is for the avant-garde audience.  They know their people. 

If you can’t tell by now, my creative thrust is fueled by:

  1. Being empowered by knowledge of my client’s product
  2. A belief in promoting the short-term needs/wants/desires of a target audience by really looking at how a product or service connects with their root incentives.  
  3. And space… space to freely connect to the creative task at hand.  

If I don’t have information, and I am lacking perspective from the end consumer’s point of view, then no amount of chill-time or whatever you may want to call it will help me land the right idea.  I can have ideas, lots of them, but the right idea runs around off-leash.  In fact, let’s go back to that dog analogy.  

It may be that the leash is the information.  I need to run freely and play with my “idea puppy” and wear it out with bad and even uninformed ideas for a while to get us both tired and ready to focus. But the leash of reality (target client needs/wants and desires) reins us in and gives me some structure to assure that the work becomes high-value. 

It occurs to me that there’s another structural thing that reins in a project again at this point, one that I observe early sometimes and other times I leave until later —  budget.  The constraints of budget are real, and to the many people in the creative world who I know, those constraints are a “bummer”.  I don’t see it that way, though.  They are real, they can’t usually be moved, and to cry over spilled milk is usually a waste of time and energy. Why bum out over something we have zero control over?  Instead, for me, it’s more important to place the constraint of budget somewhere in my creative flow so that I don’t pitch something that will just earn a “no” or worse.  

In the case of my best creative, I usually ignore the budget for a bit. I need to dream.  I need to “what if” for a while and do exercises like: 

  1. “What if this were a movie?  What would my storyline be?”
  2. “What most popular piece of pop culture would be a ready-made ad for this client? Why?”
  3. If I were to sell this product or service in an unusual place or an unusual way, what would that odd story be?
  4. What would a target customer rather be doing than listening to a pitch from my client? What if we merged the “rather be doing” activity with our pitch? 
  5. Would my client be impressed if a skywriter flew over their house and wrote the invite to buy the product?  (You see, this one is already funny to me because most people are indoors during work so we could use a skywriter and show how the target completely missed the message and make fun of that. Not sure which client of mine this is for but now I wanna use it!)

The above list looks like my personal what-if list but I don’t have a written rubric, I have a habit.  And that habit looks like I’m crazy. 

You see, I pace.  I act stuff out but not loudly. I mutter.  I gesture.  I have faces (sad, angry, surprised, etc).  There was a time in my life where I was an actor, and perhaps that training filters in here.  I was trained in improv as a child.  I had the benefit of a Broadway director who mentored me. I was on stage, and later in life, on TV for a stint.  The exercises an actor does to “get in the role” matter to my creative.  They unlock ideas, and as improv goes, you need to have ideas that strike a chord and you need to land them with uncanny timing and nearly instantly.  I’m not that good. In fact, my friend, Thomas, dragged me up on stage in his troupe’s improv show after years of me being “out of the game” and I held my own. But it wasn’t anything to write home about.  Fun as it was it reminded me that improv is a muscle and it needs to be worked often. Luckily for writing good motion picture content it just needs to work when you’re done with the creative process. 

So, all of that muttering around yields ideas that are quite likely too expensive.  They are budget-ignorant.  When that happens it’s really good, because the heart of the idea, or “the punch line” if it’s a comedy, is there.  Now, ask yourself, “How do I keep the punch and meet the budget?”   That’s a self-negotiation that is iterative.  I rarely find that I can’t use the valuable idea and get at least the spirit of it to fit within the constraints of the client budget.  And, to be fair, my ideas that include a scene in a Swiss ski chalet starring Ted Neugent, Greta Thurnberg, and a herd of fainting goats, may become three no-name actors standing in a park sipping tea with a herd of stuffed animals. But the punch line, vibe, setup, or scenario that made the first idea work is ABSOLUTELY somehow found in the second version. 

Now, through all of this, I know there will be some who feel as if this level of high creativity is not even remotely of value for them.  Maybe your work will either by choice or by mandate only be talking-head interviews.  Let me challenge you to at least adopt some form of my creative drive.  What you can gain in the confines of a talking-head interview by applying a creative process are things like: killer interview questions, location ideas that will add relevance or wow factor, staging ideas that my introduce better background or foreground elements, and maybe the desire to try different technologies such as auto-sliding camera positions or framing that reveals your gear or some other thing that is hyper-relevant.  

Some people have said to me — ‘don’t be different for different’s sake’.  I hear that, and definitely agree that being avant-garde for the sake of some perception of being an “artist” (I use quotes to minimize the feigning of being an artist) is likely destructive, not constructive.  I also counter with, “different gets noticed”.  Different is refreshing as long as it’s not pompous or perhaps so taboo that it surpasses interest and earns anger.  That’s bad, of course.  But, I will defend the desire to be different — because that is absolutely what both marketing and film are about.  It’s about telling a new enough story to get the attention of an audience who is bombarded with information already.  We need to rise above the cacophony of noise and be the standout.  That takes work, and that takes being different.  

Lastly, I think I’ll address clarity. A guy named Donald Miller wrote a book entitled, “Building a Story Brand”.  I love it. It has a 7-step process (that is essentially the hero’s journey, as you can find in Vonnegut’s work as well as in many others) with which you can write out a brand statement that turns into your brand’s message to your target client.  It makes your customer the hero, you the guide, and tells them that you have the magical information that will get them from where they are to where they want to be.  There’s even a special point where Donald advocates reminding them that if they don’t take this journey with you there’s a consequence (such as remaining stuck with a situation that they are in, or maybe even worse, such as a loss of a valuable asset like wasting time).   This is a great structure to get the value of a business’ offering to a point of clarity.  Now, I see these turn into brand scripts for talking head — eyes to camera, infomercial grade video often.  They can work really well given certain applications, but they are not usually awe-inspiring or wow-inducing.  These are clarifying.  They are so clear that you really can’t miss the point and you really do understand their offer well. They are also boring.  If I stay, I get the point, but I may not stay unless I already know that I need to hear this pitch.  

What I love about Donald’s work, from my perspective, is that as a creative who wants to rise above the white noise, I personally need clarity on a product.  Using the StoryBrand SB7 framework, I can verify how to speak to my target audiences.  This is a form of diligence, the research, that helps me know who to talk to and what they value.  It is part of the groundwork for BIG creative.  Again, I won’t diminish the videos that just regurgitate their fill-in-the-blank script based on the SB7. There’s a place for those, and I think you should buy his book and read it — but it’s also not a substitute for applying a creative process to get really new, notable creative work in the can and onto the screen.  

So, there’s my process, or part of it… kinda… I don’t really have a process.  I have elements.  I may mutter around a lot on one project and I may chill with a glass of wine and dream from my back patio on another.  Maybe I do both.  I may have instant ideas or it may be a labor to get to the end product.  And heck, let’s be real — sometimes clients come to me with a demand of “my competitor did this and I want my own copy”. And if that’s all we’ve been allowed to do, then my creative work is how to ethically copy someone else’s thing — which definitely is possible and ethical to do (think of that act as, “my neighbor has a red Mazda, I love it, I’ll get a red Mazda, too”).  

You don’t need an official process, you need results.  Take whatever I wrote here and adopt and test whatever you think might work.  What I will say you must keep, lest you tempt fate and risk peril, are the constraints of budget and target.  If you don’t deliver on those, whatever great idea you have is trouble.  Be prepared to trim, change, pivot, and modify your big idea to fit reality and have no hubris about it. Remember, the first blog in this series makes fun of self-proclaimed artists because I really find them to be inefficiently married to their identity which sadly skews ideas to fit the artist’s ego and not the client’s needs.  There are so many grounded, real artists in this world who don’t make you eat their title for breakfast, so mimic those great ones and be a good, wise human through your creative pursuits. 

As I often end vlogs, blogs, and in-person encounters with friends, let me say… “Why are you still here? Go create something!”

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