Working in advertising and marketing these days is a wee bit stressful. People are losing their jobs. Accounts are under review. Data scientists keep publishing reports. Agencies keep highlighting their data capabilities. Large-scale consultancies are muscling in on the business.
Creativity is under siege.
But all the charts, reports and data points in the world can’t generate a formula for creative. It’s capricious. It’s human. And it still matters. You can have a thumbnail with the right number of people and the optimal contrasting colors, tag the content with precisely the right metadata, nail the messaging, saturate the market and still find your content simply sinks to the bottom of the digital ocean. The creative just didn’t engage.
Rather than being of diminished importance, the output of the creative team matters more than ever. All that data and strategy—that’s just table stakes to get into the game. It’s the creative that delivers a winning hand.
Creative is something that grows, and in the right environment, creative grows well.
Recently I had the good fortune to work with Frank Oz. Leslie Converse, a long time associate of Frank’s who had worked with him as a producer on The Stepford Wives, introduced us. After some initial conversations, we signed on to work on a project with budget challenges, time challenges and creative challenges. In other words, the project was universally challenged and could easily have been stressful and fraught. It wasn’t. In fact, it was one of the most enjoyable engagements I ever worked on.
Well naturally, working with a creative legend and the performer behind Yoda would obviously be fun. Right? Wrong. It’s been my experience that celebrity and biography are no guarantee of effective leadership.
Further, once you get over the initial glee of working with someone you deeply admire, a client is a client is a client. So what made the Frank Oz engagement such a positive experience? What did he have that was different, that made us work harder, enjoy the process more and hit upon a strong creative solution—above and beyond passes backstage for the Mark Hamill interview, that is?
Two things: playful humor and kind inclusiveness. Playfulness is Frank’s way of being and working with people. This style invites participation and encourages discovery. It doesn’t diminish expectations—on the contrary, it elicits the very best.
Frank made us laugh and invited us to make him do the same. Even when things were challenging, he saw the absurd and shared it. In doing so, he gave us the energy and motivation to keep going. His humor made us feel safe to explore solutions and share our ideas with him.
I can remember several times when he made a creative suggestion, prefaced by, “Now, this could be the greatest idea ever—or complete garbage.” And one time, when we discovered a third-party error that had been carried over into our work, he started an email exchange in which we spelled each other’s names in increasingly ridiculous ways. By playing around the edges of our very real communications concerning the best way to correct the error, stress was relieved and calmness prevailed.
It became clear to us after watching the Muppet Guys Talking documentary, in which the original performers speak about their work and the culture Jim Henson created, that Frank’s use of kindly humor grew out of what he experienced working with Jim Henson. All of the performers credited much of The Muppets’ success to that culture, and all of them spoke about the laughter, openness, playfulness and innate kindness that made space for creative exploration. Creativity needs room to stretch out and grow.
I have one final realization to share: a sense of humor requires confidence. It’s faith in your own abilities that makes humility comfortable and allows room for others to contribute meaningfully. So, have some fun. Be playful. Let everyone have a voice. Explore that crazy idea. It might be wrong, it might go viral or it might even win you a shiny gold pencil, lion or gender-neutral statue.