What Does It Take?
By Fernando Machado on Jun 05, 2020
How to go from appreciating great creative to actually making it
For some reason, I have always believed in creativity. Maybe because I always thought that something creative was more fun than something that was not creative. Maybe because I understood at an early age that creativity is key to differentiate yourself, your products, and your brand from the sea of sameness out there. Maybe because I was lucky enough to work for people who felt the same way as I did. I am not 100% sure what the reason was or when this view was born, but the fact is: I’ve always believed in creativity.
But believing in creativity didn’t necessarily mean I was good at developing great creative. A really common question I get asked is: What does it take to develop great creative? And, believe it or not, my answer to the question evolved over time. Maybe it will even continue to evolve and I will be answering the question differently in the future. But, for now, I believe that there are five key things one needs to focus on in order to become a truly creative marketer.
I still remember gathering around with other trainees from Unilever to watch the reel from Cannes. We used to borrow the VHS tape (yes, VHS, this was around 1998) from the agency, buy some beers, and crash in one of the guy’s apartments to watch ads. Man, that was so much fun. I still remember watching Budweiser's "Whassup" for the first time. Or Levi’s "Drugstore". What about "Real Man of Genius"? How can you not fall in love with creativity watching that stuff? But liking that stuff didn’t mean I knew how to develop any of that myself.
A picture from around 20 years ago when we used to watch award show reels in VHS tapes (and play PlayStation). From left to right: Rodrigo Andres-Wickbold (President at Kraft Heinz in China), Tomas Tomas Marcenaro (former Unilever VP), Marcel Marcondes (US CMO at Anheuser-Busch), and I (yes, doing great creative ages you!)
In fact, even though I’ve always loved creativity and advertising, it took me almost ten years to still like a campaign that I had led one year after its development. Let me explain this one. I was learning so fast, so much, that I would lead the development of a campaign, launch it, feel incredibly proud of the work, and then, a year later, I would look at it and think “What the hell was I thinking?!”. This is so true. My experience, skills, and criteria were developing so fast that, I would work on something today, be proud of it, and then just a few months later I would think it was total crap.
Before you ask, this is the first ad that I still liked it one year after developing it. And, by the way, I still like it today (~14 years later). Amazing stuff from Kash Sree, Craig Smith, Maxim Dashkin, Jon Randazzo, Jordan Kramer, Julian Katz, Andre Massi, Ivan Zacharias and lots of very talented people.
The keyword in the previous paragraph is criteria. You may have an interest in advertising, you may enjoy watching ads, you may love the industry, but you need to have criteria. No one is born with criteria. When it comes to advertising, everyone tends to have an opinion. If you show an ad to my mom, she will have an opinion. It doesn’t mean it a good one (sorry mom), but she will have one. Criteria is something you develop over time. And you develop it by being obsessed about the industry, by spending time with people who have criteria (usually agency people), and by developing several campaigns over time. In my case, I was obsessed about the industry and I was lucky enough to work with incredibly talented agency people, so all the rest emanated from that. By the way, you need to be obsessed with what you do. Life is too short to not be obsessed with what you do. But that’s a different article.
Obsession usually leads to one working hard. And, believe me, if you really want to develop great creative stuff, you will need to work really hard. Budgets are short, people around you may lack criteria, priorities are usually placed elsewhere, etc. There will be so many barriers. And as you develop your criteria you will realize that great creative needs great craft. And great craft is hard work. You will not create something amazing with average craft. If anything, craft can turn an idea which is just OK into an amazing execution. So, get ready, there will be sweat, tears (and occasionally some blood) involved.
That said, you will not be doing everything by yourself. The vast majority of the ideas we develop are not ours. We surely collaborate, but our best ideas all came from having a solid relationship with our creative partners. You need creative partners who are also creatively ambitious, of course, but if you have criteria and if you work hard, chances are you will end up working with the right people. Look at their reels. Are they good? Would you be proud to have a campaign at the level of the ones in their reels? Do you guys challenge each other or do they simply do what you ask? Do you leave inspired after talking to them? Do they truly get your brand? Ask yourself those questions.
So, if you have criteria, if you work hard, and if you have a solid relationship with your creative partner(s), you still will need courage. Being creative usually means doing something different. And that difference will yield a better outcome. Doing things differently is not comfortable. And when people feel uncomfortable they get afraid. Most of the time when smart people are afraid they find many really good reasons for not going ahead with an idea. That’s why you need to understand that, to do something truly creative, you need to be willing to take a leap of faith. It’s not about being fearless. It’s about forging ahead even when you are afraid. What marketing people sometimes don’t realize is that if they only do plain vanilla, flat work, that will probably not be good for their brands (or for their careers). Courage and conviction are key. And remember that any great work comes together with a certain level of criticism. So be ready for that too.
"...to do something truly creative, you need to be willing to take a leap of faith. It’s not about being fearless. It’s about forging ahead even when you are afraid."
Finally, you can have all of the above and still not build a track record of doing great creative work consistently. There is one really important point which I saved for last. It doesn’t matter if you have all of the above if you can’t influence your organization to make things happen. I’ve seen people who didn’t have many criteria, nor necessarily work so hard (sorry!), managing to make great creative work happen. Why? Because they had great creative partners, courage and managed to influence their organizations. It’s hard to do that consistently, but it can happen. That only shows how important influencing is. You should also remember that it’s a journey. Align on the objectives, start small, make it happen, prove results. Repeat. Build your reputation internally. Make everyone (especially your boss) more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Show them that creativity leads to better outcomes. Then, over time, your degree of influence will increase and you will be able to do bigger things and increase the frequency of getting work out there.
A young Fer Machado trying to convince Paul Polman (former Unilever CEO) to invest more behind the media plan of Dove Real Beauty Sketches in 2012.
In short, having criteria, working hard, building a solid relationship with your creative partners, having courage, and knowing how to influence your organization are the key ingredients that will help you develop great creative consistently. It is not easy. If it were easy, every brand would be doing amazing creative work all the time. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. It takes time. It takes passion. It takes getting frustrated. It takes resistance and persistence. And, many times, it takes criticism, eating alone in the cafeteria and long hours. That’s pretty much what it takes. It’s not easy. But it does pay off. And it’s much more fun.
Fernando Machado is the Global CMO of Burger King and a member of The One Club for Creativity's Board of Directors.