Baking the creative from scratch

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ingredients_small.jpgADOTAS – We live in a world of “found” creative. And the sword is double-edged. While it’s contributed, certainly, to the efficient execution of our ideas — a good thing — it’s also tended to homogenize those ideas. Not a good thing. At the very least, it warrants discussion.

First let me explain what I mean by “found” creative. When an art director, designer, or creative team begins an assignment these days, one of the first places I’ll find them digging for ideas is in the vast catalogs of stock imagery and footage available online.

The piece is about something sour? Find a picture of a lemon. Simple, efficient, quick, and usually, well within budget. But, is there something missing? I think so.

I think four distinct mindsets — separate, but frequently combined — have given birth to this instinctual hunt for existing assets — and its newfound place ahead of original thinking in the timeline of creativity. And they’re all products of the digital space in which we create.

First, digital, as a space, a culture, and a generation, has a strong DIY ethic. For many digital creatives, the end product is something they’ve pretty much always had to build themselves. They’re not used to having the luxury of a budget or timeline that allows for creating original imagery, so they’ve developed a fierce pride in their ability to make do with the resources at hand.

Second, there’s cost. While we’ve come a long way with this mindset, digital executions are still seen — by clients, and by agencies — as the way to deliver when budgets are tight. Digital is cheap, or so the thinking goes. The problem with that thinking is that it doesn’t include a definition for “cheap.”

When compared to a 60-second spot buy on the Super Bowl, it’s a pretty sound bet that your digital execution should, and will, cost less. How much less, though, is relative — to the idea, and to the goals for the piece. In the world of television, no one with any experience would assume that an intern-executed, low-quality camcorder commercial could ever compete with a network-level spot in terms of quality or viewer engagement.

Yet that very assumption is made every day, hundreds of times, in the online space. To be fair, online, there are success stories that feature no-budget content. But a simple look at the sheer volume of online content tells you quickly that those successes are the exception, rather than the rule.

Third, there’s all the other stuff, beyond imagery and content, that goes into a digital experience. The action — the action you put into it and the action you want the user to take. In the digital world, this is a function of creative thinking, too. And it’s as important a function as any other portion of creative thinking.

But too often, we think about the UI without giving due credit to the full UE. And it’s the wrapping — the imagery — that contributes an emotional component to that UE.

The fourth mindset that contributes to the proliferation of found creative is also the simplest: There’s a lot of really good stuff to find. The well is deep. And most times, just what you’re looking for is a couple of clicks away.

Collectively, these four mindsets lead most creatives, and most clients, to the logical conclusion that many or even most times, it’s a prudent decision to use a wheel that’s already been invented. And frequently, that’s the right choice.

But sometimes, it’s merely the easy choice. There are times when the user experience and the brand will see much more benefit by making a much more difficult creative choice.

In another life, I directed fashion and fashion-inspired TV spots. The influences I studied for light, composition and attitude were the best in the business: Avedon, Newton, Ritts, et. al.

When those photographers captured an image for their advertising and editorial clients, they produced more than a picture of a woman wearing a dress. They put a stylistic subtext in the image that reflected on the brand. It also separated the brand from competitors who had no such subtext in their imagery.

Similarly, the historic Levi’s 501 Blues campaign made use of (for the time) non-model-looking models, a unique blue caste for the images and a signature camera style that separated the work from everything else on the air.

These are creative choices that contribute to the finished piece in ways that found creative — existing assets — can’t.

Yes, they’re budget decisions. And timing decisions. But they’re just as applicable online as they ever were in the pages of a fashion magazine, or in the commercial breaks between network shows.

Original thinking, combined with purpose-built content, can produce a final product that is stronger and better serves the brand. Almost always the best things you find can be found inside your head. And to truly see them come to life, you’ll have to make them from scratch.

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