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5 creative rules you should break

5 creative rules you should break Jason Bender

When I started out as a copywriter and a professional "creative," I had a list of rules I followed in my head. Not my rules, really, but guidelines I'd adopted as gospel from industry heavyweights who had published their ways of working and shared their unique points of view on how to approach creative problems. I'm talking about creatives from Ogilvy, Gossage, Trout & Ries, and Luke Sullivan, for example. In other words, people who had already accomplished what I aspired to accomplish in my own career. For a while, those rules served me well. I used them to attack and solve creative problems, and they worked. Except when they didn't.

I kept or adapted some of those rules, killed some, and added others. And these new rules began to work, so I had a new set of rules to follow. They became my own internal gospel. Etching themselves into my brain, they created deep grooves (ruts, even) that I could dependably follow to get the ideas I wanted. And they worked for a while, too. But the world kept changing. Especially the kinds of problems my clients brought to me and the technology that consumers were using. All of this inspired the theory I live by today: Knowing which creative rules to break is just as important as knowing which ones to follow.

5 creative rules you should break

Early on, my career swerved and took me into the digital space. I quickly saw how much the world would be changing and how quickly that change would occur. It was fascinating and different every day. Now, years later, in my current role, I use my creative problem solving skills in the innovation space, helping clients make sense of how they can use new technologies and new human behaviors to drive their business.

That often means ideating solutions without the luxury of a pre-determined format (like a 60-second spot, or a homepage), solving problems that didn't exist months ago, and exploiting new technologies, media, or tools that didn't exist weeks ago -- or inventing new ones as we go. This includes anything from building applications to discovering new ways consumers can interface with an experience. And that means figuring out which rules -- which deep grooves in our brains -- we need to question, ignore, or break.

Rule No. 1 to break: Do something that's never been done.

This rule confuses innovation with invention. Sometimes you can do both at the same time. And it's great when you can. You invent something that's never existed, and it's an innovation. But you can often innovate by using an existing medium in a new and unexpected way, or by leveraging an existing technology in a different way. It's not inventing something new; it's innovating on an existing platform. And that's OK. As a result, we often start with "what existing platforms can we innovate upon or within," and breaking the rules of those platforms is what sparks the innovation.

Rule No. 2 to break: Treat every great idea as something precious. Protect it at all costs.

I believe this rule still holds true in classic message-driven media. But in innovation-driven work, I believe there are many potential solutions and lots of great ideas. They can come from anywhere, and I believe there is a virtually endless supply. The real challenge -- the real thing you need to protect -- is the execution as you build. When innovation is the goal, the uncharted territories and unknowns make it easy for the execution of a great idea to fall apart as it's being built. Avoid being victim to the overly cautious, those lacking the vision to see how great success could be, and those without a good process for working without a clear end in mind.

Rule No. 3 to break: Don't show yourself in the work. Reflect the brand's voice, not your own.

As a young writer, this rule was drilled into my brain. The rule says that the voice of the work must be the brand's, not the creative's. It was explained to me as "the difference between art and business -- and make no mistake, you're on the business side." But when I look at the distinct, innovative work that has been a powerful, disruptive force for clients, I see that more often than not, a single individual has been the spark, voice, and champion of the work, and that individual's unique perspective is what comes screaming through the work. And I don't think that's a bad thing. The more I see it, the more I've come to value creatives who have that distinct point of view they're willing to put into their work.

Rule No. 4 to break: Be an expert (or bring in the experts).

This is the idea that to be creative, you have to start by having a deep understanding of a product and how it's used. It's the idea that only a "healthcare creative" can touch a healthcare account. Or only a "car guy" can ideate inside the auto industry. But I've found that when you're trying to innovate, you often need an outsider's perspective. Someone without the institutional knowledge that, while useful on occasion, can become a barrier to innovation. So if you're trying to build the best possible retail app, for example, you don't want a team that's lived and breathed only retail. You get innovation when a team can bring their app-building experience and perspectives from totally different industries -- from entertainment to casual dining -- to see how their insights and experience apply to something like retail. Bringing disparate ways of thinking together is a great way to drive innovation, rather than the small, iterative, and incremental change you get from experts.

Rule No. 5 to break: Follow best practices. Do what's been proven successful before.

Best practices are a reality, and they are helpful when a medium's format has stabilized (e.g., 30-second spots, direct mail, email). With a solid format and enough data, you can extract best practices and then simply optimize executions over time for best results. But innovation, by definition, will mean either defining new formats or turning existing ones on their heads. This means not following best practices. Instead, innovation requires a leap of faith. An educated leap, but a leap nonetheless. Strategic innovation does require an understanding of best practices, but it also requires a willingness to throw them out the window for what you believe (not know, but believe) will be better. This is the risk that comes with innovation. It's also what makes this kind of work so challenging, interesting, and exhilarating.

Jason Bender is the executive creative director at Rockfish.

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"Green impact" image via Shutterstock.

Jason Bender serves as Executive Creative Director for Rockfish, a digital innovation partner for some of the world's largest brands and part of the WPP network. Prior to Rockfish, Bender spent 10 years leading digital creative teams at WPP agencies...

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Commenter: Carl Hartman

2013, November 26


Yeah. We tell our creatives what to do, not the other way around. Creatives want to build stuff to win awards and for themselves. Creative is all about ego.

Rule #2 - "Creative" stuff is rarely the best at marketing. Keep it simple.

The simplest thing is usually the most effective. I have demonstrated to our clients over and over that the slickest and most creative marketing is less trusted by consumers. Your marketing should never look like marketing.

Something I learn as a TV network executive, the best programs we had were pure, well structured stories. Advertising is neither. It's pitchy and rarely trusted.