"I tell you folks, it's harder than it looks. It's a long way to the top, if you wanna rock 'n' roll."
AC/DC didn't lie, folks. And the creative world isn't any different. Not only is it a difficult road, not only is it a long road, but honestly, it should be both.
And just like garage bands want to make it big overnight, interns quickly imagine themselves in the shoes of the creative director before they can fill them. But for every one-hit-wonder, there are a dozen success stories that took decades to be overnight successes.
Those are the ones that have staying power. And to be a career creative, you'll need it, too.
1) Learn to love shows with empty crowds.
Anybody that's been in a band knows the feeling of playing a 30-minute set to a bar full of nobody but your girl/boyfriend. But those are all part of the journey to famedom.
As an early creative (or any creative, really), you'll work your ass off, for no reason at all.
Sometimes nights and weekends will be sacrificed for the sake of an idea that you really wanted to crack. But here's the kicker...that idea won't go anywhere. It'll get written up, revised, chopped up, pinned up, then crumpled up and on the floor in front of a wall full of the few ideas that survived.
Good. You need tough skin.
I was lucky. It was a few years before I had a miss. And when I did, I got in a funk. I figured I wasn't good enough to crack the project, because I hadn't cracked it on my first try. Yeah, my first try wasn't good enough and I was bummed. Rookie mindset.
But that idea being killed was the best thing that could've happened. I learned what it felt like to fail. And then what it felt like to go back for another round and fail again. Then, I finally got a winner...three more rounds later.
This is all part of the process. You need ideas to be killed. You need to know the difference between good and bad. You need to remember that you have a lot to learn, and the ones you can learn from are in the same room.
2) Play the bars before the arenas.
After the rooms are filled, and bands move from open mics to dive bars, then bars to clubs, then to county fairs, opening for stars, and maybe eventually headlining at arena, they realize they learn a lot along the way. The problem is when an inexperienced band somehow hits it big, and they fall apart.
They haven't been tested, felt the pressure of the booing, had drinks thrown at them on-stage, had to suffer every step along the way.
It happens with creatives, too. Some agencies hand out titles like candy, and we, eager to find a shortcut to the top, take it. Then, we find ourselves completely unprepared for the responsibilities of our shiny new title. Inexperience isn't bad. But there's only so much you can learn along the way. And it's even worse when you're thrust into a position that's supposed to guide others, when you have no idea how to do that.
Don't get greedy. Enjoy the journey from junior to mid to senior and beyond. Learn every little bit you can, because you'll need it at each gig, all the way to the arena shows.
3) Make a great album, not a song.
You don't know Dexys Midnight Runners, but you've probably heard "Come on Eileen." Nena doesn't ring any bells, but "99 Luftballons" might get you singing along. One-hit-wonders are fun, but could never deliver past a single song.
Which is the same as when I see a great print ad. And a great spot. Or a great video. But never a great campaign.
One of the trademarks of a mature creative is their ability to make more than a single hit. Being able to come up with ideas that have legs, the potential to form into a cohesive campaign.
You want someone to see the harmony in your portfolio, all your work coming together to make a great collection of ideas. Not just a couple singles.
4) Aim for a platinum record, not a Grammy.
I may not be super popular here. But if I were a musician, I'd be the one aiming for sales, trying to get that platinum record, not a Grammy. I mean, yeah, that shiny phonograph statue would make a nice addition to my bookshelf…
But there are only a few Grammys awarded every year. And in the end, Grammys don't pay the bills. Success, to me, is if my work sells. Not if a few randos think it's good.
You see where I'm going with this? As a creative, you need to figure out what's important to you. If that means awards, then follow through with that. But understand the risk in your goals, and where do you define success: in the hands of the customer or the eyes of a panel of judges?
Me? When I visit Rotten Tomatoes, I look at the audience score. Not the critics.
5) Musician or a manager?
Some people want to make music. Some want to make bands. Self-awarness is a hell of a thing. It helps you know what it is you actually want out of your career and your life.
Lots of people have told me stories about how they climbed the ranks of creative, worked their way up to the ACD or CD role. But after they got there, they realized they hated the management side of the job. They loved being in the weeds, doing the work, creating. It's a rough realization that, as you move up, you make things less and make creatives more.
Having self-awareness let them take a step back, both in their mindset and in their ladder-climb, and focus on what made them happy.
Paul Rand was noted by Steve Jobs to be "the greatest living graphic designer." He devoted his life to creating and executing, because he knew that's what he loved doing. And that wasn't opening some huge design shop and managing others.
You don't have to keep climbing, just because you think that's how it's done.
Don't Rush It
Enjoy the creative journey in your career. We get so impatient, wanting to skip steps, feeling like we already know everything that we need to know. When, in reality, if we took our time, and focused on learning what we could from every position, every person, every agency, we'd understand that there's more than the climb.
The best bands are the ones that earned their battle scars. And the best creatives do the same.