The Creative Process 1. ‘Preparation’ Part One

Written by

Andrew Millar


April 15, 2007

It is tax time again and I have a new tax agent. There is nothing special about that except that I’m going to see if I can get my grand idea past this group of people. I’ve tried before and failed but I’m willing to give it another go.

You see I have this idea that because I work creating marketing and advertising I should be able to claim my whole life on my tax. Every cent I spend should be tax deductible.

It’s a long shot but I think I’m justified. And here’s why…

The first step towards the successful completion of any creative task can be defined by the word ‘Preparation’. This first stage is one where you gather together all of the information you’re going to need to solve the problem. It’s like a plumber laying out the tools and fittings they need to complete the job – all the plans, diagrams, PVC elbows, copper bits, spanners, hammers and so on – so that when the job is in progress everything is at their fingertips. There is no interrupting the process to walk to the truck for a saw. It’s all there ready to go.

In creative terms, our preparation takes two forms. There is, of course, the brief and we’ll speak about this in a later bleat. But the other form of preparation comes in the form of life experience. So one form of information comes just before the task starts and the other you need to be gathering 24/7. This experience is the everyday observation of people, what they do and how they act. It’s vitally important to our work because you need to know who you are talking to in order to communicate properly with them. Good marketing is like holding a mirror in front of your customers and showing the relevance of your product to their lives.

There are all sorts of research tools you can use to help gain this insight. But nothing beats going out and getting dirty with the general public. That costs money and that’s where the tax thing comes in.

To keep in contact with life is the very reason we established our studio in the heart of Adelaide. We are surrounded by the people we need to connect with… – in fact every time I fly out the front door I connect with some poor bugger walking past.

‘Street Buzz’ was something I yearned for when I worked on one of those dual lane business boulevards east of the city. Looking back now I felt detached and isolated. I had a minor case of ‘Ivory Tower Syndrome’. This was a common ailment in the 1980s. Advertising people lived such isolated and insular lives in air-conditioned Porsches, extravagant expense accounts and brass and glass office towers that they forgot their connection with the real world. In some cases during the working week their feet never touched the ground and their hair was never disturbed by natural, albeit polluted, air. A lot of 80s advertising reflected this detachment from reality. Leo Burnett summed it up saying ‘Loss of humility can wreck our judgement. Smug complacency can put a roadblock in front of our progress.”

Actually it’s fair to say that all of the 1980s was detached from reality.

Thank heaven we’ve moved on, if only a little. Today’s version of this ‘idea inbreeding’ could be dubbed the ‘Ivory Shore Syndrome’. I had a coffee with someone I worked with 20 years ago and he had just returned from 3 years in Sydney. He described how isolated everyone is there. The fact that once home on a Friday you did not move from your area until you needed to return to work on Monday morning. He described how isolating this could be for creative thinking because ‘like minded groups’ tended to stick together. Ad people connecting with ad people. Directors connecting with other film directors. And so on. In the end people create to please other creative people. Not the general public. (Good god, don’t let art be commercial.) His example was the Australian film industry and how homogenised it has all become. (How often have you heard a great film praised by the comment ‘The Director made the characters seem so real!’ The trouble with films like Wolf Creek is that the reverse is too true. The character becomes reality. We’re worshipping the ‘Whore of Babylon’ again.)

So we, as creative people must be conscious of keeping up with where the world is heading. Too much advertising is aimed at where customers are now, not where they’ll be in the future.

So here are a few things creative people can do to keep their ‘people antenna’ tuned…

1) Travel. Nothing beats a good tour of somewhere different to add fresh fertiliser to the brain. That’s one of the great things about Adelaide; we know there’s more out there, so we go looking for it. People in Melbourne and Sydney tend to believe that the world needs to come to them.

2) Once a month spend a week riding the bus or train to work. Look at people. What are they reading? What are they listening to? Do they talk? Do they make eye contact? Just watch and see where your opportunities lie to communicate. (Just avoid catching the Communal Commuter Cold that will be going around.)

3) Read a few popular books. Read a Mills & Boon novel. (You only need read one.) They sell 175 million copies every year, so there must be something there that satisfies a need. Understand it. It might be useful later on.

4) Watch the other channels. Identify your viewing habits and make a conscious effort to look at different programs. Find the ‘highest rating programs’ lists and check how many you watch. You should make it a point of seeing each and every one to know why they are so captivated. (If you don’t watch them you might miss the opportunity to parody.)

5) Go to other people’s football games. We are a tribal bunch and football is a great way to understand the palpable difference between us. As an exercise look at the teams’ nickname. Understand some of the attributes that are characterised by the mascot. (Look beyond the aggression.) Then see if you can see what differentiates the fans.

6) Go to live music venues you think you don’t like. Skiffle? Irish Folk? Opera? Trad Jazz? Remember the exercise is not to become a devotee yourself; it’s to see what it is that others like.

7) Attend research groups and listen. Don’t just read the report. Go and listen to the way people talk. Listen to their personal anecdotes. Take note of characters and mannerisms. Listen to what they are scared of and what makes them laugh. And listen to the way they talk to each other. All of this is good ‘idea fodder’.

And this is only the beginning of the list. As a creative person you need to constantly broaden your pool of knowledge and understanding to effectively communicate.

Of course, this all costs money that I’ve paid tax on and feel justified in wanting it back as a ‘deduction of expenses incurred in earning an income’.

Andrew Millar
Cell 4, Row H, ‘C’ Block
Yatala Prison for Tax Evaders