paper planes representing divergent thought

Getting great work in a good-enough world

How to manage, and honor, creative perfectionism

“Squirrelly.” That’s how a producer pal of mine used to describe a particular art director in our group. I’m pretty sure she was referring to the way he constantly second-guessed his creative decisions.  Back and forth back and forth he went in search of something better.

Okay, so, creative folks sometimes obsess over the work, I get it. Present company included. But, hey, there’s a little piece of our soul in everything we make. And, yes, some of us are better than others at knowing when to put down the mouse. Still, it is an inescapable truth, creative people aren’t just driven by the urge to make stuff, we are also driven by urge to make stuff better.

From the turn of a phrase to the tweak of some type to the nuance that makes an idea snuggle up to a strategy, in our minds there’s a damn good reason why things are the way they are. Until whoa – wait, oh cool – if we just change this word and move this there – okay, that’s much better, right?

Though perfectionism can be frustrating to watch, I believe, without “squirrelly” creatives mentally scurrying to and fro, collecting new ideas and making improvements (yes, a lot like squirrels collecting nuts), the ad world would be a desolate and dreary place.  And while the ludicrous speed of marketing today has no time or tolerance for the pursuit of perfect, I believe the relentless desire to make something extraordinary is vital to the future of communication arts.

In my experience, there are ways for agencies to lean into creative perfectionism and honor those tendencies while producing beautiful, intelligent work that’s on time and on budget. Here are a few quick suggestions from a picky creative who reluctantly has turned out her fair share of good-enough work.

Provide impeccable input

I know, I bitch about this A LOT, but bad briefs are a massive time suck. They send creative teams on an exhausting quest to figure out the assignment when they could be thinking, making or redoing. An insightful, inspiring and business-minded brief is a game changer for creativity and profitability. In my experience, the best kickoffs happen when the person writing the brief consults with a senior creative first. It also doesn’t hurt to have every account and creative person read this book by Luke Sullivan.

Plot appropriate timelines

Since most creatives are prone to obsess, why not plan for it rather than complain about it?

Timelines will never get shorter. But milestones can definitely be meted out for more efficiency. For example, conceptual assignments require extra time up front for idea generation, even if that means squeezing approval times later on. Web dev jobs typically call for more evenly distributed checkpoints because of the many layers and players involved. If your project managers don’t know the best cadence for an assignment, make sure they consult with creative leadership prior to locking down, and sharing, the schedule.

Respect the work and the worker

Back in the day at Leo Burnett, my GCD, Bob Dreveny, used to compare our ideas to poker hands. On more than one occasion, I sat in his office with “a pair of jacks” wishing we had more time. I knew my partner and I were capable of two aces, or even a royal flush, but the client meeting was usually the next day. In his calm and kind way, Bob would bless the work and remind us that two jacks was a respectable hand. We had a decent idea that would likely please the client, even if we all thought it could be better. Bob always made his people feel respected. His approach to creative evaluation recognized both the reality of deadlines and the creative compulsion to keep working toward a better outcome.

Compile and filter creative feedback

Creative people are like dogs. We just want to please. That’s what John Immesoete, my former GCD at MARC USA, used to say. He offered this as a constructive truth and I totally agree. We want to please our boss, the account folks, the client and, equally important, that little voice in our head that says, “Make it better.” But when all of those parties offer up conflicting feedback, well, that’s the stuff of crazy making and it comes at a big price. It costs mental energy and precious budget hours. The solution? Channel creative feedback through one source. It can be the account lead, a creative director or even a project manager. By compiling and filtering input from all parties, we honor the owners of the idea with the gift of clarity and focus their desire to please in the right places.

Build a culture that celebrates quality

Speaking from experience, some shops say they’re all about creativity, when what they really are is afraid. It’s only natural to fear the things we don’t understand or are out of our control. In my opinion, companies that hire the self-aware and foster healthy relationships at the leadership level, engender trust in every department. This, in turn, creates a culture of understanding and an acceptance of “squirrelly” behavior as a natural part of the creative process and the pursuit of excellent work.

Want to read more about managing perfectionism? Check out this piece in the Harvard Business Review.