Spooner on…IMHO does WFH really scupper creativity?

spooner newAN APOLOGY: My last column, number 46, Spooner on…creatives at risk of burnout, my arse!, was generally well-received, garnering dozens of ‘likes’ and positive comments in every corner of the social media landscape BUT one person, who had themselves suffered from creative burn-out, was triggered and saddened by my words and another was enraged to the point of abuse by my ‘old-fashioned thinking’. I have already apologised to them both ‘below the line’ but thought I should take this opportunity to apologise again. My columns are intended as a light-hearted response to the current issues facing the industry and I hope my readers (without whom I am NOTHING) will understand that the reason they may sometimes seem mordant, is because my tongue is generally in my cheek. Now onward to the business of my latest column, with humility and good cheer…

Clang, clang clang, clang, clang and, again, clang.

The sound of the bell from the delightful Saxon parish church that Lord McKelvey drowned in order to create his boating lakes and eel ponds, then repurposed to summon me, could only mean one thing; I WAS BEING SUMMONED.

I cast aside the layer of reasonably fresh straw that I am allowed in the draughty shed that I share with the McKelvey Bantam chickens and rubbed my face clean with a little spit and an ancient copy of the long-defunct Precision Marketing magazine before the polished biscuit-tin-lid that serves me as a mirror, then lurched out into the dawn light.

Up past the byres and piggeries, through the smaller of the two woods, in through the herb garden and the GARDEN OF POISONS into the formal parterre and around the back to the scullery I jogged, ever-fearful of keeping the great man waiting. As I entered, I remembered to crouch so that when Lord McKelvey’s under-housekeeper Ms Fortescue-Simmons came at me with the scullery brush, my wrinkled, old face would remain relatively unscathed by the hard bristled besom she uses in order to protect the parquetry and the Axminsters from the clouds of straw and chicken feathers that follow me like a cloud.

“You’ll do Spooner,” she hissed, “here, have one of last night’s canapés from the soirée his Lordship threw for His Excellency the Zimbabwean Ambassador, it will tide you over until I feed you and the outdoor dogs at eight sharp.”

Bowing low in recognition of her magnanimity and savouring the slightly fizzy oyster in its puffed-pastry shell, I lurched onward and up the great staircase, down the long gallery past the Klees and Kandinskys to the purple morning room where the master is to be found each morning between six and seven, in conference with Ms De Soto and Ms Fairbrace, his wellness consultants.

I scratched feebly at the great oak door and re-assumed my usual servile crouch.

“ENTER!”, boomed the voice that beguiles Hollywood starlets and press magnates alike.

“Ah, Spooner, you worthless dog!”, he bellowed. “Two articles recently published in my magnificent organ have gained what the youths call ‘traction’. Twistleton-Fiennes, the new Head Of Enthusiasm, will Air-drop them to you as you leave. The one suggests that working from home prevents soi-disant ‘creative people from collaborating and creating, the other implies that younger creative people will only toil in their mercantile Gehennas if they are allowed to work from home. I would like you to examine this…”, he paused and swirled his wheatgrass, kombucha and Louis Roederer cocktail in its giant flagon, PARADOX! I also trust that you will bloody well resolve it, or it will be short rations for you until Michaelmas. Have your copy on the system before Lady McKelvey rises from her slumber for our third breakfast. BEGONE CUR!”

I backed, bowing repeatedly and muttering blessings, out of the room as Ms De Soto and Ms Fairbrace began to crank up the great, silver pumping machine and Lord McKelvey’s white, ermine, monogrammed bathrobe fell silently, like St Stephen’s snow, to the purple shagpile.

So, what about it then? Surveys, as per the articles above, suggest that we are less able to “create” when we are distanced – yet we all want to work from home.

This immediately brings two things to mind.

The first, a description of television advertisements from Raymond Chandler’s often-overlooked The Long Good-Bye. Marlowe is in a quandary and has been watching the boxing and a crime thriller on television, to distract himself. This is his description of the advertisements he sees: “…the commercials would have sickened a goat raised on barbed wire and broken beer bottles”. I think we all know what he means.

The second, perhaps more esoteric, is the collaborative work created by the great American beat writer William Burroughs and the poet and artist Brion Gysin The Third Mind.

Let me see if I can explain myself.

In one of these articles, the platform provider, Optimizely, tells us that “92% of marketers said the ability to deliver content to the right audience at the right time has been impacted by working from home” and that “92% of marketers also agreed dispersed teams have impacted the ability to develop creative ideas”.

In The Third Mind, Burroughs and Gysin propose the existence of a “third mind” that inhabits and aids in the production of creative work. They are talking, to some extent about the introduction of randomising techniques, such as the “cut-up”, where dispersed and reconstituted text or film leads to the creation of new, unprompted ideas and opportunities. They are also, however, talking about the “third mind” that is created when two, or more, creative people work together.

We have all experienced the rebarbative horror that is the creative brainstorm, but we would all, if pushed, probably be forced to agree that it can occasionally generate new, exciting and unexpected ideas as long as it is intelligently mediated. (I have lost count of the number of times that I have uttered the mantra “we are not here for BUT and NO, we’re only here for AND and SO”.) I think this is an example of the “third mind” in action. There is something about the well-run brainstorm which can create a social construct that is greater than the sum of its parts.

More importantly, anyone who has worked in the traditional team of art director and copywriter, will understand the concept. We have all had better ideas as a result of sharing, discussing, elaborating and building on the thoughts of a colleague.

Why else from about 1935 until about 2010 would senior management have tolerated the sight of a cynical copywriter dragging the suspicious and highly professional art director with his smart, blank, white marker pad to the pub so often? Because something about getting out of the agency and working collaboratively in a relaxed context, fuelled by pints, often produced the best results.

Neither of these ways of coming up with creative ideas is really possible when working remotely. I have conducted proposition development workshops and creative brainstorms via Zoom and, frankly, I would often have been better off coming up with the ideas in my room alone.

I think creative people need to interact. Why else has the greatest art and music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries so often been produced in the context of an “atelier” or group of one kind or another?

Working remotely is more like ping-pong. I have an idea and bat it across to you, you bat it back with spin and on we go until the idea and the people working together on it are exhausted. Unlike poetry, or the bildungsroman, or classical composition, advertising creativity is an innately social craft. Remove social interaction from the process and it is much harder work. It’s hard outside the walls of an agency to socialise your work. As the great Lester Wunderman said: “Show a colleague, show an idiot, often that can be the same person.”

So if working collaboratively generates excellent results, why, in the words of Infinit Space’s survey do we get results like this: ‘Our survey found that more than half (53%) of 18- to 34-year-olds are considering moving jobs to somewhere with more flexible working practices, either in terms of when or where they work, with more than a third (36%) of employees of every generation feeling this way. Meanwhile, 61% of decision-makers admit they are struggling to get employees back to the office, with two-fifths (39%) seeking a new workspace to reflect their changing office needs.”

Despite the protestations of the proprietor of this esteemed organ, Decision Marketing (the number-one, go-to publication for everyone working in the UX/CX/DM/DR/D2C space, or whatever we’re calling it this week) I see no paradox or conflict between the results of the two surveys at all.

The issue is the changing nature of the business we work in. When you are producing content of whatever nature, social posts, long-form copy, campaign content to support digital advertising, often even digital ads themselves, it is rarely that you are working to create the kind of “big idea” that drove the business when television commercials were king. Very often you are working to create equally important “small ideas”; ideas that can be written down by the copywriter alone and then designed and crafted by the art director. Only a small percentage of the ideas generated by a typical agency these days need to be BIG.

And, our smarter, younger colleagues recognise that much of the work that they do can easily be done remotely – and it is only rarely that they need to come together in the service of that more creative, more imaginative “third mind”.

The issue, as so often is one of management. A good creative director will be able to recognise those opportunities where surprising, “disruptive” creativity on a grand scale is crucial – and will be able to organise her creative people in such a way that they are always working in the service of the kind of idea that the job requires.

I rarely need to come up with a tremendous Thames-igniting idea if I am writing a series of social posts – but if I am tasked with creating an overarching concept or a campaign idea, I will always prefer to work collaboratively with an equally talented colleague or group of colleagues.

It’s not beyond the power of human ingenuity to create situations which serve every aspect of our creative business, which is why, no doubt, clients continue to flock to Spoon Creative Ltd.

You may remember Marlowe’s view of television advertisements from earlier in this article: “…the commercials would have sickened a goat raised on barbed wire and broken beer bottles”.

There never has been a golden age of creative advertising and we are not living in darker times now. There has only ever been creative advertising that has more or less resonated with the people we want to buy our stuff. How we find those great ideas has very little to do with where we do our work, it has a great deal more to do with how we approach it.

Big ideas? Small ideas? Collaboratively generated ideas that transcend the imaginations of the participants in the process? They are all available at reasonable rates here at Spoon Creative Ltd.

Come and get them.

Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative

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