There's an arc of experience that I see in almost all creatives who work in a business environment, whether they are writers, like me, or graphic designers, videographers, etc. This was definitely my experience, and I think it's fairly common. We start out after college, in our early 20s at a time when we're excited about making our way in the world of business, among experienced adults. In that environment, it's human nature to want to prove that you belong. So, as a result, we do what we are taught to do: we are creative. I recall a friend of mine who had a meteoric start to his copywriting career right after colleges saying to me, "I see every single assignment they give me as an opportunity to write something kick-ass, no matter how small or unimportant the assignment might be."
While it worked quite well for my friend, the result of this can sometimes be highly creative work that doesn't really address the client's or employer's business interests. Haven't you been impacted by an ad because it's very creative or funny or touching, but you can't quite recall what product it was advertising?
At this point, sales and marketing people enter the equation and hit us with this dose of reality. Sometimes they are direct, as in, "This is crap. Do we need to find something else for you to do around here?" Sometimes they are more polite: "I like what you've done here and it's very creative, but I think we need to be more specific about the product's benefits." Over time, this feedback starts to accumulate and coalesce into an overriding message that your creativity is not as magic as you thought it was. Eventually, the creative professional needs to make a change and it's either get out of the business or adapt.
How do we adapt? At some point, I had to change my thinking. Early in my career, I worked as a copywriter in an advertising department for a travel and tourism school, and one of my responsibilities was writing articles for the school's newsletter. My very first article was about their Career Night, where students would meet potential hospitality employers. Before the event, students were lined up outside the door, professionally dressed and holding a stack of resumes.
I decided to lead the article with the line outside the door, comparing it to the long lines at the theme parks in Orlando, just a few miles away. I wrote the article. In fact, I wrote the living hell out of my theme-park-line lead, pouring everything I had learned about creative prose writing into it. Descriptions of the scene, the heightening anticipation, the giddiness of the students. Hemingway couldn't have written a better lead about a Career Night line than I had written!
Then I showed it to the executive who had to approve it and I remember his response as if it were this morning: "Well, I don't know if I like the idea of comparing our Career Night to an amusement park." And the way he said it, he sounded as though he was insulted because I had belittled this very important event. I was completely deflated and, in a huff, went back to my desk and wrote a standard who-what-when-where-why style lead. It was dry and boring, which is how it was published.
Shame on me. What I didn't realize at the time was that this executive was communicating to me what his business needs and expectations were. I hadn't put any thought into the purpose of this newsletter, its audience, and the desired result of the article. I just wrote something I thought would be good writing.
From this experience, I started to understand the relationship between creativity and business. I started to learn that, even though I had a skill, my skill had no value if I didn't use it in a way that accomplished the business objectives of my employers or clients. And to this day, this is one of my core business ethics: As creatives, we must first understand the business purpose of every creative assignment or project and use our skills to achieve them.
I think it's good advice for fellow creatives, especially those who are fairly early in their careers. And after you've earned your paycheck, if you still need to satisfy your creative urges, write a novel (I have; still unpublished), or get a canvas and start painting and truly enjoy the creative process on your own terms.
Marta Kagan's "Bonafide Marketing Genius" Blog
Andre Sanders' "Running Without Condition" Blog
Jessica Sneeringer's "Mal-Diction" Blog