This piece’s headline is a statement I’ve used many times to teach my three kids how to manage their energy. The difference between too much and enough is a trigger for a rambunctious five-year-old to stop and think whether or not their aggressive hugging is too much for the new puppy. In our household, it’s a mnemonic for considering restraint.
I have the privilege to work in a creative industry where the outcomes are only objective once they’ve run their course. Deciding what to say, who to say it to, and how to say it are predicated more on conjecture than hard facts. By this I mean our ability to learn about markets, screen through data we mine and make what I’d generously refer to as an “educated guess” as to what a consumer wants to see. Throughout this guessing game (I like the way that sounds, but really, there’s more finesse to it) we have to remind ourselves not to cross over into that perilous, “too much” territory.
“Sure, perfect is the enemy of done, but so is terrible.”
In creating consumer-facing ideas, we have to ask ourselves what’s more important… Do we conduct months of studies to come up with an exact approach to reaching our consumer base? Or do we try things and adjust as we go? Some of our clients value a creative gestation period.
They want me to be the judge of what’s too much and what’s enough. Others would instead execute quickly with the understanding that hurrying is often a depth charge. They’d prefer we move fast, learn, and adjust course.
Both approaches have their own set of unique problems to solve, and in that way, I find them each inspiring. If you’re a creative leader (or working with one), here are a few tips on working through both approaches:
Preference: Creative Gestation.
- Embrace the chaos. If you’re like me, having time to consider all the angles under the sun can feel turbulent. Like you’re losing control. What’s more, if you happen to be leading a team, your creative ego can start to chime in, pointing out that you have no idea what you’re going to do. I’ve been there, many times. You have a giant sandbox to play in, and everything feels like a possibility. Don’t get overwhelmed. Accept you have no control. Pause. Take a deep breath. Then, step off that ledge. Embrace the chaos.
- Find inspiration. You may find this step happens while you’re in the midst of step one, but hey, that’s how it goes. The important thing to understand is that there’s a difference between embracing chaos and actively searching out inspiration. Not to get philosophical (but I will), you’re a feather in the wind. Go where each gust takes you, and try to harness that energy to gain some creative momentum. Cooking, playing instruments, reading, writing, mindfulness (mediation), and watching documentaries are all tactics I use to help find inspiration.
- Don’t be suspicious of speed. Sometimes a good idea gets better from the act of it becoming decentralized. Sometimes it’s a creative leader’s job to do this; other times, the client will pull an idea apart. When you’re caught in the moment, creative work can hurt. It can feel like you’re having a tooth pulled. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but we in the business of creative services often conflate time spent with the quality of an idea . Nothing could be further from the truth. A great idea comes whenever it comes. Accept it. I’ve had great ideas within 20 minutes of talking to a client, and said to myself, “It can’t be that easy.” I’ve also found myself prolonging the process and project, only to return to my original idea after wasting time and energy trying to explore an alternative.
- Determine when is “enough.” Your client, team, partners should support the idea of you putting some time into discovering what should be done. That generosity will require you to decide when it’s time to show your work. Sometimes a healthy deadline helps. Even when I have the privilege of taking some time, I try to remember that the longer people wait, the more they expect excellence. It’s on you to decide how much time is enough time to sit on an idea before you share it.
Preference: Move Fast.
- Set a reasonable goal. In this case, your goal is to iterate quickly, but there is such a thing as too quick. This is where I see most creatives go astray. Yes, your client wants you to move fast, but they also don’t want the creative to suck so bad that they can’t justify your role in the relationship. If you’ve done the legwork to build trust, your client will know that if you say, “It needs more time,” they should wait it out.
- Find a champion. Jim (J&M’s co-founder) and I have had this running joke since about 2013. He’d see me struggle with an idea and need to put in late hours to make it a reality. Instead of saying goodnight and going home, he’d hang out with me, offer to pick up food, make coffee, etc. Admittedly, at first, I was put off by this. He’d even go as far as to stay up with me remotely if I worked on something from home. Just in case I needed him. One day, when I asked him why he does this, he explained it to me in the most epic way possible; using our shared affinity for Lord of the Rings. He quoted Samwise Gamgee, saying, “ I can’t carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you.”
Look, coming up with something from virtually nothing is hard. People want to help you. You’re not in it alone. It’s the Samwises of the world who help you to carry that burden.
Establish a gauge for good enough.
In this article’s context, we’re talking about creativity to advertise a client’s product or service. Sometimes “on the nose” applications might feel like a lazy approach, but often they are the right approach. Sure you’ve seen it before. But, stop and ask yourself, “Is this the most direct translation that exists?” If it is, build on it. . There’s nothing new under the sun, but there’s plenty left to learn. Find what’s good enough and run with it. In digital advertising, nothing is set in stone. Moving fast can teach you what works and what doesn’t and allow you to adjust as needed.
With each of these methods, you can see a common theme: it’s up to you to know when it’s time to pick up that idea and carry it over the finish line. Remember, you are the judge of the creative interpretation of a client’s message, but you aren’t the jury. In reality, neither is your client. That honor is reserved for the consumer who will choose to engage with your client’s brand, or they won’t. They are the real decision-makers. The sooner you accept that the better your work will become.
Stay loyal to them, and your client will appreciate your take on what “too much” or “enough” looks like for their brand.
Matt Maguy is co-founder at James & Matthew, an advertising agency located in Massachusetts.