4 Questions That Should Keep Creative People Up All Night

by Joseph Crump

Use these 4 top-secret questions that world-renown creative agency Avenue A | Razorfish uses when assessing and evaluating new projects. Might as well model the top dogs.

There's a sea of change occurring in creative circles these days - or maybe it could be called an identity crisis. What does it mean when the star-studded Golden Globes ceremony gets canceled because the Writers Guild of America wants a share of internet revenue? When on of the top TV spots of 2007 was filmed by an amateur for $27? When an obscure Colorado blender company - Blendtec - can create viral sensation without even hiring an ad agency?

It means the role of agency creatives is in transition and that their carefully guarded Black Box of creative tricks and tools has to be rethought. And that's a good thing.

On one hand, the power of design in creating memorable and successful products or brand experiences is stronger than ever before. Usability - once fetishized - is now merely the price of entry, like seat belts in a car. Desirability is the new Holy Grail of switched-on brands, from airlines to banks to T-shirt makers.

The bar is getting raised every day for the way an object or an experience looks and feels, its tone of voice, its personality. This is the territory of copywriters and designers - the creative professionals - and we should feel more empowered than ever before.

On the other hand, creatives must become vastly more sophisticated in the ways they exercise that power, and more nimble and less precious in their communication and collaborations with their colleagues, their clients, and the end-user.

Four powerful creative trends are afoot here:

1. Old-school design methods are failing. The pace of change among consumers and competitors has grown so fast that using a conventional process to hatch a marketing campaign, a Web site, or a new product virtually dooms it to being obsolete by the time it's complete.

2. Innovation is the new currency. The days of a whopping marketing budget or a pretty design equaling success are over, as Blendtec has so well proved. If you're not creating something that's genuinely new - as well as useful and delightful - you are screwed.

3. Everyone is a creative. Your next-door neighbor can make a YouTube video or design a MySpace page that sits on an equal media playing field with anything we produce here at A | Razorfish.

4. Narrative is the experience. As the web becomes the preferred destination for brand exploration, digital experiences must become richer, deeper, and more able to tell compelling stories. If your brand experience depends entirely on pages and clicks, it's time to wonder, "What is my story?"

So as creative folk, what are we to do about these seismic changes?

A modest proposal: Before a project starts, the creative team needs to go into a room - their literal Black Box - and close the door. They need to write these four questions on a whiteboard and then do some soul-searching.

If "no" is the answer to any, they should put the breaks on, and everyone - the account team, the client, and project management - should head back to the drawing board. Here are those scary questions:

1. Are we aiming high enough? What is truly new-to-the-world about what we are doing? Is the thing we're about to advertise or design truly meeting a customer's unmet need, or are we just designing an "also-ran" or putting lipstick on a pig?

2. Are the right people in the game? is our concepting team truly multidisciplinary? Does it include profound input from industry experts, brand strategists, consumer insight specialists, technology wizards, information architects and copywriters?

3. Are we willing to fail - quickly? Are we prepared to be wrong a few times before we are right? To be really, really uncomfortable? Are we willing to throw out our tried-and-true process and all our favorite creative tricks - even though they work - in order to create a real breakthrough?

4. Is there a story here? Are we designing a page or an experience? What is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the brand story we are creating? Does it move - and are people moved by it?

Creative people will always represent something of a Black Box within their studio/agency or for their clients, because management is overwhelmingly left-brained, analytical, and liner in its approach to problems. And creatives are, well, the opposite. This is not a bad thing, but it goes a long way toward explaining some of the blank stares that both sides give one another when they are talking to each other.

The point - now more than ever before - is not that creatives have to be more assimilated, or learn how to use a spreadsheet, or care less about perfection. It's just that it might be time to put some new furniture in the Black Box and then invite people to come inside for a visit.

by Joseph Crump, Executive Creative Director, New York