There’s just no pleasing some creatives

The Core Agency's Kevin MacNamara discusses why dissatisfaction plays a positive role in the creative process and why turmoil and creativity have always gone hand in hand.

Dissatisfaction is the natural state of a creative mind.

I remember talking with a creative in London who’d just done a bunch of D&AD award-winning Nike posters. I commented on how amazing it must feel to have his work plastered all over London. He just moaned: “Yeah but they didn’t buy the good ones.”

I was somewhat flummoxed, wondering how on earth is it possible to be unhappy after making so much fantastic work. (And also terrified by having to somehow present work to him that met his standards).

It’s resounding proof that creatives are never truly satisfied. The ‘grass is always greener’ isn’t a cliché for nothing.

At a talk given by Irvine Welsh, he said he never reads his work after it’s published because he always sees things he wishes he could change.

Well, that made me feel a lot better about my constant dissatisfaction, if Irvine Welsh is never happy with his work, then why should I be?

My first real lesson in how we should never be satisfied was from legendary ad exec, Dave Trott, telling me about the creatives at DDB New York who were working on VW.

They had a great fact about one of their cars; the VW Rabbit could drive half a mile on just 10ml of fuel. The best visual they came up with was a petrol bowser dripping fuel into a teaspoon. A decent enough visual, it was persuasive and dramatised the fact perfectly. But if they gave that brief to every creative in the world, we’d all come up with the same visual answer. They knew that and kept pushing.Then, one of them took a teaspoon of liquid and poured it onto a paper towel, held it up and said this paper towel contains enough fuel to drive a VW Rabbit half a mile.

It turned something good into something astonishing. To my mind it’s still the best example I know of that shows what can happen when you keep pushing for an idea.

As an aside and an experiment, I thought I’d see if AI could come up with this idea or anything close, just to see if we could be saved the pain of bashing our heads against a wall trying to think of something great.

Well the good news for creatives (and bad news for those who pay for the advertising) is it couldn’t.

There were teaspoons made from fuel, cars made from droplets of fuel, and fantasy forests with droplets of fuel in the shape of a car. After 70 or 80 different prompts I gave up. If we want great ideas it seems we’re stuck with the pain of thinking of them (for now anyway).

It takes discipline to keep going when what you’ve got seems ‘good enough’. However I want to add an important disclaimer; it also takes discipline to know when to stop. (Many a good ad has been ruined by continual ‘tweaking’ like a perfectly good meal that’s been over-seasoned).

Kevin MacNamara

I recently watched a talk from John Cleese, where he wondered why writers that he knew were better writers than him, didn’t write scripts as good as him. He put his finger on it when he said coming up with ideas is painful, and those who are willing or able to stay with that uncomfortable feeling for longer, are able to write better scripts.

I don’t know the stories behind great work such as Dumb Ways to Die, Carlton Draught’s Big Ad, or the Melanoma Likes Me campaign. But I’d be surprised if there weren’t a whole bunch of perfectly good enough ideas that fell by the wayside because the creatives kept trying.

I can’t remember who said it to me, but I’ve always remembered it: “The harder we work the harder our advertising does”. Which is more pertinent than ever with shrinking budgets and increasingly fractured media spaces.

The anguish John Cleese talks of is true. Childbirth is painful, and ideas are our babies. It’s the reason why us creatives can be such a moody lot. So, apologies to anyone I may have been a bit stroppy to over the years. It was only because I care.

The good news is dissatisfaction plays a positive role in the creative process. In fact, turmoil and creativity have always gone hand in hand.

One of my favourite movie quotes is from The Third Man: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.