I realised soon after I became a copywriter that the inspiration for great creative work will rarely be found in a client’s brief. As excellent as their brief may be, it’s only the starting point. What you must do if you want to produce something remarkable – and by the way, that should always be your goal – is get your hands on the product. That’s easy enough if it’s a car or a teabag, but takes a bit more ingenuity if it’s a service or the client is a charity.
Then you have to ‘interrogate the product,’ as I once heard it horribly described. You need to experience it as a customer, or user, or as a beneficiary. Very pleasant if the product is a single malt scotch; a bit more grueling if it involves rescuing abused animals; and a real test of your ingenuity if it’s a tax-free investment plan. But you have to find a way into it, whatever it is, because only then will you discover the remarkable, unusual, fascinating and strange features of the product that will perhaps stimulate inspiration.
The next essential is time. You need time to incubate all the information you’ve gathered during your interrogation. Since the whole world now believes faster is better, in almost all activities apart from sex, you will have to fight for this. But some things can’t be hurried. You have to protect your time. You may need to leave the building to get away from the fetters of modern slavery such as the phone and email – and you will need to switch off your mobile ball and chain – but that’s all to the good, since great ideas will seldom occur to you while sitting at your desk.
If inspiration strikes, you then need to evaluate your ideas. The harshest critic of your work should be yourself. If you are easily satisfied by your own ideas, you lack the obsessive itch that will make you a halfway good creative, and you should consider a different job. The problem with that itch is that you will never regard a job as finished – but deadlines are sacrosanct, and you must learn to let go.
At this point, if your work has any merit, it will become public property. Everyone who touches it, in the agency and at the client organisation, will have ideas about ‘improving’ it. This is a particularly fraught subject. Many creatives instinctively fight hard against all changes – they are after all more emotionally bound up in it than anyone else. But the startling truth is that sometimes the changes are for the better – and even more startlingly, the client is not an idiot. It takes considerable judgement to decide which changes are beneficial, and which you should die rather than accept.
Those are some of the secrets of creative success, I believe. What about success in climbing the greasy pole otherwise known as the agency hierarchy? I can offer two suggestions, which both lead to the same conclusion.
The first is that in all big agencies you will find what one of my art directors called ‘the great ranks of the unsacked.’ They are in all departments, wafting about like the undead. They once had ideas, but now live off those of others, to which they attach themselves and suck out the life if you let them. Learn to spot them, and avoid them until you acquire the power to fire them.
The second is that big organisations generate an endless supply of pointless meetings (or even a pointless supply of endless meetings). If you can’t avoid them, one way to shorten them is to remove all the chairs. That cuts the duration by about 80% and improves the output, if any, by the same amount.
The conclusion both these lead to is that you’re better off in a small agency, of course. Brann London was the first time I went small, and clients loved it so much I had to do it again and again with better partners and no big brother.
Paul’s Mini CV
First job: shop assistant in Debenhams. Almost inevitable in Croydon, my birthplace, land of shops.
First proper job: running a bookshop in Plymouth. Think Black Books, West Country style.
Next job: teaching in comprehensive schools in Bristol.
First job in DM: 1989 – trainee copywriter at the once great Brann.
Big break: 1992 – became Executive Creative Director at Brann.
Next move: 1997- set up Brann London
Entertaining but futile career move: 1999 – ECD at 141, part of Bates
1999-2015: Creative partner in Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw
2016 – : Executive Creative Director – Table19
Paul Kitcatt- Executive Creative Director