I often tell our clients that the world of possibilities is enormous and there may be hundreds of right answers. The challenge is knowing when you’ve truly found one and whether you’ve done a good (or hopefully great) job bringing it to life. What does that look like, feel like, and smell like? When do you lean in and start to polish your good idea into a great one versus continuing the exploration?
I offer this incomplete list of twelve criteria for good creative based on my own experiences, endless conversations with other creatives, and research that I’ve done. Please put your additions in the comments section below (I know you’ll have some). Note: I've focused here on "good" creative instead of "great" creative because, in my estimation, truly great creative is something incredibly rare.
1.Good creative is simple. Simplicity cuts through the morass and grabs you by the shirt collar. It’s not ornamental or overtly fanciful. Complexity turns things to mush. Simplicity delivers substance in an illuminating way.
2. Good creative solves the right problem. A good brief will present the creative with the right problem. But these days where there is widespread use of creative briefs and nobody training people how to write them, they very often don’t have the right problem. Or at least it’s not articulated in the right way. Think how hard a software company works to arrive at the exact problem they’re trying to solve. Just think how fast science progresses when researchers are focused on the right problem. So, very often, creatives must spend time getting to the right problem before they tackle the solution.
3. Good creative is suggestive. Creative that invites the observer in and lets them interpret it a bit is a lot more powerful because it’s involving. Think of it like joke-telling: if you explain it, it’s not funny. Don’t close the loop for them, but invite them in and allow them to do that. And speaking of jokes…
4. Good creative is often slightly funny. Humor is a gift that helps us transcend the human condition, shrug off misfortunes, and rise above. Making something humorous lightens people’s load and they will reward you with attention and interest.
5. Good creative is usually hard. This is a topic of some debate and you might not agree. Sure there are moments where brilliance strikes right off the bat. And there’s something to be said for the gut instinct applied in the first few seconds. But in my experience, the right solution isn’t the one that raises its hand first. You have to submit yourself to a self-torture process. You need to agonize and explore and be ready to kill the weaklings. As sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
6. Good creative looks easy. It’s an illusion. Like, how hard was it to come up with the simple three-word slogan “Just do it”? Actually, probably pretty freakin’ hard. The appearance of ease comes with practice and a lot of hard work. And simple solutions very often look easy.
7. Good creative is often a little strange. I hear your skepticism machine whirring in the background, but hear me out. With the onslaught of information pummelling the eyes and minds of consumers out there, sameness is wallpaper. It’s a waste of time. It checks the box, but that’s basically it. Good creative breaks through by being intriguing, mysterious and even fascinating. Don’t sanitize that. Don’t think, “That’s the right idea, but how would everyone else do this?” Let it be... in all its uncanny glory. Imagine if Matisse tried to paint like Van Gogh or if Kesha tried to sing like Bob Dylan. The only style worth having is the one you can't help. All of that said, you do have to be a little strange in a way that’s consistent with the brand. So there’s that.
“You have to be odd to be number one.”
― Dr. Seuss
8. Good creative is often daring. Some people are just daring by their very nature. Others, like me, need to work at it. Often this involves thinking about the problem in a whole new way. Or redefining, expanding the problem, or solving the problem that’s causing the problem that needs to be solved. Or the problem that’s causing that problem. Take chances. Ask what-ifs. Delight in your mistakes. For today's experimental error is tomorrow's new theory.
9. Good creative is true. This has been said a zillion times, but I’ll say it again. Good creative illuminates a human truth. Something untrue might be able to win your attention and make you chuckle, but it will not stick with you. It will not get lodged in your brain or motivate you to act. But conveying truth, if done well, pings an area of the brain that houses our common humanity - our collective experience. Very often it’s something that is widely felt but hasn’t been articulated yet. It was just rolling around in our collective subconscious waiting to be identified. Moments like that are powerful because maybe, just maybe, they change us… just a little.
10. Good creative makes you feel something. Good creative has an emotional quality to it (B2C, B2B, B2B2C, doesn’t matter). Sure, people like to think that they’re making decisions based on cold, rational reasons. ROI. NPS. Price. Convenience. Blah blah blah. And if you survey them after purchase, they’ll often cite a logical rationale. But the truth is that people are highly emotional creatures that make a lot of gut calls. According to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, 95% of our purchase decisions take place subconsciously. And the subconscious mind is the playground of emotions.
11. Good creative tells a story. “Our brains have been evolutionally hardwired to process incoming information through story terms and structures,” writes Kendall Haven, author of Story Proof: The Science Behind The Startling Power of Story. Stories can move us to tears, change our minds, influence our behaviors, and even inspire us to action. Why is that? As renowned neuro-economist and author Paul Zak has found, emotional prompting within a story triggers the brain to synthesize a neurochemical called “oxytocin” that switches on the brain’s “attentional spotlight” and triggers feelings of bonding, empathy and narrative transportation. And those feelings move us to make changes in our lives.
12. Good creative is original. Lastly but certainly not leastly, good creative needs to be something we haven’t seen before. That’s the very definition of creative. While there can be elements of other ideas that are brought in and meshed together, the composition and presentation of the idea must feel fresh. This is not easy to do (see #5 above). It’s hard to sell, too, as marketers often to gravitate to things they’ve seen before. Maybe that’s the topic for another article.