The #1 flaw I see in creative work

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

Don't think this post is just for the creative people. It's actually more focused on people who pay for creative work. I want you to get the best work for your money.

I've been a writer at 4 agencies. I've freelanced. I've been a creative director. And now I manage a team of writers. And the 1 thing I know we do wrong isn't about the final product. It's about the process.

How can "non-creative" people make creative work better?

The process isn't defined. We have a process for lots of things--and we reinforce all the steps. You don't publish until you receive feedback from all stakeholders. Don't release the new product until you've done user testing. But what about creative work? Nine times out of 10, there is no formal process. That's because 9 times out of 10, we're in a huge hurry.

Creative work isn't seen as a professional speciality. We have MBAs. We have lawyers. We have golf pros. Those people are respected as experts and are relied upon to do their jobs well. But writers and art directors aren't always seen that way. They are seen as finishers--not creators. They are at the end of the process--not the beginning. But that's changing. And companies like Apple. McSweeneys,  are leading the way.

We stop at our first ideas. If we worked on the first two solutions, we'd avoid this problem altogether. I ran across this poster on Pinterest, and I stopped cold on "first insight." Most of our creative timelines only allow enough time to get there. But if you look at the poster, that's the first step of 6. So, if you give a creative team 2 weeks to come up with *the* idea, you might get to step 2 (saturation) or 3 (incubation), but you really need to get to other insight--the point where a connection to something completely original is made. THIS IS THE #1 PROBLEM WITH CREATIVE WORK TODAY!

My very rough suggestion is to allow three weeks for the first 4 steps. Then allow 2 more weeks for more ideas an insights to flow. Don't be afraid of how much time it takes. That's the biggest obstacle to creative work. You might find things happen faster, but you must allow the process to happen.



Remember, you're a customer, too.

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

If you're like me (and a lot of marketers), you do a ton of online research. And, sometimes, you don't quite know what you're looking for. But something catches your eye, like a new article about smart phones, running tips, or travel trends. Next thing you know, you're buying a new phone or booking a trip.

I'm a marketer--I sell stuff for a living. But I'm a customer, too!

Just because you're a marketer doesn't mean you can't (or don't want to) be sold something. Just because you know all the tricks doesn't mean you're immune to nurture.

It's important to have that kind of perspective, especially when you read articles like this, from Fast Company:

Consumers are hungry for more relevant content experiences, and some want a deeper experience with their favorite brands, which would drive consumption of brand-related content within social channels.

Think about your favorite brands. You don't want to hear from them as a marketer, you want to hear from them as an expert in their field. You want them to believe so much in what they're selling that they don't have to act like a barker at a carnival competing for slim margins or selling via spectacle.

So, when you're writing, remember, you're not selling features and benefits (Smaller! Easier! Faster!?!). You're selling your expertise. You're a guide in the all-too crowded marketplace of cloud and business IT. You're giving people relevant insights in return for their time.

It sounds like the Golden Rule, but it's true: Sell to others the way you'd like to be sold.

Just doing it. (I'm taking an online tagline writing class.)

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

Are taglines still useful? Or are they crutches we lean on to explain what we really mean? Are they relevant to today's more conversational style? Or are the even more needed because we can't retain a phrase or idea that's longer than 8 words? Should they even be called taglines?

When done well, taglines are quotable. They're memorable. And they're defining. When done poorly, they're a bad bumpersticker that you can't just peel off.

Some people I respect hate taglines. Another person I respect encouraged me to take an online tagline writing class taught by McKinney copywriter Jenny Nicholson.

No matter whether or not they're used well, taglines are very much with us, and writing a good tagline is still an art I'd like to practice. This is like a core workout for writers. We will whittle away the fat to reveal smooth, rippling short phrases.


Distiling ideas into lyrical, foreshortenend language reminds me of writing poetry, and I believe that's what good copywriting--and tagline writing--can sound like.

This Saturday Night Live Vagisil skit might make you believe in taglines again.

Be it, or say it. Choose one.

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

It's the difference between posturing and participating. I can't tell you how many times I've used this advice in my work. There's never a situation where it doesn't apply to a writing assignment.

Are you going to be it? Or say it?

Are you going to be a cool, or say you're cool? Are you actually building on a core value, or claiming a new benefit/personality trait? Are you being, or seeming to be? (We could apply this line of thinking to our own personal lives, but that's another blog post.)

I'm serious when I say this be it/say it exercise applies to any writing assignment. Take a look at an ad in any magazine and you'll find they are either being it, or saying it. Now, decide which ones are more effective. How about the magazine itself? Is it saying it supports women? Or does it make them feel inadequate enough to buy $75 face cream?

I've spent the majority of my career helping others get to the truth.

Several years ago, I became frustrated enough with the lack of focused, meaningful direction in the creative process to initiate something I called a brand truth process. The name itself explains the goal: truth. The process actually went something like: research, strategy, truth, create, but the real goal was to be, rather than to say.


Esse Quam Videri: to be, rather than to seem (to be)

The goal of be it/say it is to be authentic. And being authentic means not faking it. And faking it means protraying an image of yourself that isn't real. Which seems like the definition of most advertising. So, following in my friend Chris Grams' (author of The Ad-Free Brand) line of thinking, engaging in this type of branding process might mean doing something other than advertising. 

Be a part of your local community. Be an advocate for a cause. Be an ethical business owner. Be an inspirational hero. Then say it. See where it takes you.

I know I've said a lot of things. But I've only been a few.

once upon a time, we failed beautifully

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

Once upon a time, one of my creative teams came up with a campaign that sold service by telling fairy tales. Long copy. Character development. Trolls under bridges. All that. It seemed wrong for the category. It didn't obviously pay off the strategy. It took a while to sink in. We loved it.

We tried to sell it by simply asking our clients if they liked to read good stories. We presented the campaign in book form and passed out milk and cookies. We even proposed creating :15 trailers that lead to a YouTube page full of bad service/good service tales. And, as a last resort, we proposed running it as a test just to see if it caught on.

We didn't sell that campaign. And I can't forget it.

Christopher Butler over at Newfangled made a great point in a post he wrote about storytelling online.

...somehow, the concept of storytelling doesn't seem to have worked its way down from the worldwide mega-brands to the next tier of businesses in which you and I work. But why shouldn't it? After all, we're endeavoring to speak to the very same people they are?

Everyone likes a good story (and Butler points to Harry Potter books as proof that we actually prefer long stories). We all talk about telling stories. It seems obvious. So why didn't the campaign sell? Like Butler said, storytelling isn't news in our industry. And my friends over at the Makin' Ads blog make the case that storytelling is expected—that every good ad should have elements of storytelling in it (concrete, unexpected and emotional messages). Storytelling sells. It's appreciated and even expected. So why didn't the client buy our stories?



Scott Belsky gave me a hint. In his book, Making Ideas Happen, he talks about a storytelling workshop he attended where the participants were asked to give positive feedback only. By enhancing what works, the strengths are stronger and the weaknesses fall away. But we're all conditioned to point out weaknesses first. We even make rules that become crutches to help us dismiss work. (Nobody reads long copy anymore.) Belsky says it's actually harder to give affirmative feedback than to dish out criticism. And when you're presenting to five people and two of them voice negative opinions, rarely does anyone challenge those opinions with positive feedback.

That's what happened to our campaign. It was dismissed fairly quickly and no amount of chocolate chip cookies could save it.

But it was a beautiful failure. We failed better that day than we had in months. Let's do more of that. It makes a better story, doesn't it?