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How Do You Confront a Blank Sheet of Paper and Live To Tell About It?

What would be scarier to you -- having dinner with Hannibal Lecter, or being given a blank sheet of paper and asked to create an ad campaign?

This question is reminiscent of the famous Jack Benny story. Benny is being held up at gunpoint and the thief says, "Your money or your life?" After a long pause, the thief asks the question again, to which Benny then replies, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!"

Like Jack Benny, you may need some time to reply to the opening question. The fact is, many people would rather dine with a mass murderer than have to create an advertising campaign from scratch.

Even people who create advertising campaigns for a living can get sweaty palms when meeting up with a blank piece of paper. There's always a fear factor when you begin to create something from nothing. Here are a few observations about how to bring the creative process to a successful conclusion with minimal consumption of coffee and Maalox.


If you think that "Creative" is a "Department," you're already working behind the eight ball. (Or should I say the "black, numbered sphere?") Creativity is everyone's job. Underneath it all, clients and account service people are critical elements in the development of great creative.

You can't escape the importance of the client. Do you think Wieden & Kennedy would have the same notoriety if their client were (insert the worst client you've ever known) instead of Nike? I surveyed more than 40 creative directors for an April 1998 Agri Marketing article and asked them to rank the most important factors in developing great creative work. The No. 1 answer was "Good Creative Team." (What would you expect them to say?) Surprisingly enough, running a close second was "Client Demands Great Creative." It was ranked higher than factors like substantial budget, adequate development time and on-target input. (See table.)

The chart below represents the percentage of 43 creative directors
ranking a factor as first or second in importance.

Good Creative Team 74%
Client Demands Great Creative 60%
On-Target Input 55%
Adequate Time to Develop Ideas 9%
Selling Ability of Presenter 2%
Substantial Budget 2%

Then there's the role of the often maligned, frequently second-guessed account service people. They have the power of life and death over the campaigns they present. But if the truth be told, the best account service people are even more important as a source of sound marketing direction and a resource to bounce ideas off of. I learned their value in my very first agency copywriting job. I was working on a BASF ad and brought rough copy to the account supervisor, Paul Hermberg. He told me he liked the copy but that my headline was hidden in the third paragraph. He was right. The ad won awards and the client gained market share. Sometimes it pays to listen.


In the old days, some ad agencies were willing to forgo ad strategy as long as the visual was interesting and the headline rhymed. Today, however, most agencies at least try to bring a strategic bent to their creative development. Most of them start the creative process with strategic documents with names like "Creative Work Plan" or "Creative Strategy Outline." Properly completed, that kind of input form will increase the campaign's success by 51.7 percent. (I just made up that figure, but I'm sure it will get quoted somewhere, and I'm sure it's a lot higher than that anyway.)

In the real world, strategic input forms are poorly completed as often as they are thoughtfully filled out. Reality aside, a good input document that considers target audience, competitive positioning and a singular message is priceless. Inevitably, when you try to shortcut this process, you spend more money on copywriting and art direction and end up with a reduced chance of marketing success.


When a creative team is staring at a blank piece of paper, or at a flashing cursor on their computer terminal, they occasionally need a jump-start. That's why you find creative awards show books and copies of old Agri Marketing "Best of NAMA" issues in most creative departments. And as resource books go, they're on the same level as a dictionary or a thesaurus. The trouble is, too often these books are used to copy someone's thinking rather than serve as a stimulus to fresh thinking.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. One year, right after Fallon McElligott had won a ton of awards for its "Perception/Reality" two-page spread ad series for Rolling Stone magazine, I was asked to judge an awards show. When I got to the two-page spread category, half of the finalists looked just like the Rolling Stone ads. Now imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and all of these ads looked good, but to me their developers (notice I didn't say "creators") missed the opportunity to create rather than imitate. They failed to realize that big ideas are only big once.

When I lecture college students on creativity, I recommend they use awards books as a resource -- not to follow someone around the creative track, but as a warm-up lap for their own run at creative excellence. I challenge them to look at a successful ad and imagine the creative session in which it was developed.

One example I use is an ad for Pepto-Bismol created in the `70s by Benton & Bowles. The visual is a highway sign in the middle of nowhere that reads "NEXT REST AREA 37 MILES." The headline that accompanies it says, "Diarrhea. It can make strong men weep." I can envision what that creative session must have been like. Someone probably said, "Where would be the worst place to have diarrhea?" I imagine one person saying, "Right in the middle of my wedding vows," and someone else saying, "On the train when it's in the station and the restroom is locked."

The point is, you don't look at the Pepto-Bismol ad and turn around and write a headline for a swine dysentery product that says, "Diarrhea. It can make a strong pig weep." That's imitation at the least and probably comes closer to plagiarism. The key is to look beyond the product attributes for the one question that unlocks the door to the next great idea.


A blank piece of paper doesn't have to be scary. Just learn to listen, demand good input and use resources to help you create rather than imitate. That ought to silence the lambs.

Paul Welsh is a freelance copywriter and marketing communications consultant based in Leawood, Kan.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Doane Information Service
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:tips for brining creative process to successful conclusion
Comment:ADVERTISING CAN BE SCARY.(tips for brining creative process to successful conclusion)
Author:Welsh, Paul
Publication:Agri Marketing
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001

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