Making Room for Chaos

Is your creative process suitably tumultuous?

"What's your process for getting to great creative?"

It's a question that's asked in almost every RFP. And to be honest, I'm not sure why it always gets asked. I say that not because it isn't important to have a process, but because every agency's process is roughly the same. I've worked at five different agencies throughout my career and participated in dozens of RFPs, and in each one, the answer to the process question is invariably some version of Discovery, Distillation, Ideation, Production, Deployment. But even as we all give this consistent answer, deep down we know it's not quite the whole truth. You see, we're not lying when we give this answer, but we are leaving out an important part of the process—perhaps the most important part—which is Chaos. 

Earlier this year I was struck by lightning—twice actually. Two separate campaigns that I worked on were shortlisted for Titanium Lions at Cannes. I am incredibly proud of both campaigns and consider both to be high water marks of my career to date. But they could not have been more different. To begin, they were created at two different agencies. One campaign took a week to make, one took over a year. One sort of had a brief, the other definitely didn't. One was a relatively conventional ad campaign, one was anything but. One involved Taylor Swift, the other, not so much. I suppose if you stepped back far enough, both campaigns mostly followed the process that all agencies mostly adhere to—Discovery, Distillation, etc. But in the details, and as they were being made, they felt like we were breaking every rule imaginable and forging entirely new, uncharted ground. And as I look back at the other peaks of my career, I realize they all kind of had this feeling of being without precedent.

That's because, just as no two songs were ever conceived and created in the exact same way, the same is true of two campaigns. While we do our best to create efficient and replicable models, the reality is that the creative process is chaotic. We are not assembling Ikea furniture; we are striving to conjure ideas and solutions that have never existed before. Stories that have never been told. Products that people never knew they wanted. Experiences so wondrous that people can't help but record and post to Instagram (accompanied by our tastefully branded hashtag). 

But it's important to recognize that there are two kinds of Chaos. There's Good Chaos and there's Bad Chaos. And the absence of Good Chaos can be just as harmful to fostering creative as the presence of Bad Chaos. So, let's begin with defining Good Chaos. Good Chaos is an environment where trust and respect allow for opposing ideas and opinions to collide. Good Chaos is a process that isn't so rigid or expedited that it doesn't allow for deviations or idle ideation. Good Chaos is a place regularly inundated with external stimuli that force us to reset and reconsider. Bad Chaos is all the unwelcome and unexpected intrusions that hamper the creative process. It is murky objectives, panicked timelines, team changes mid-project, divergent feedback. 

Over the past year and a half, as work has gone increasingly remote, there's been a distressing rise in Bad Chaos accompanied by a decline in Good Chaos. It's harder to challenge someone in a meeting without the release valve of the post-meeting coffee, the random collisions that happen in a physical space are less frequent, the endless Zoom calls encroach on idle think time. Even as we plot a return, or at least a partial return, to physical workspaces, we know that remote working is here to stay in one form or another. And with that new reality upon us, as an industry we'll need to discover new ways to engineer and make room for Good Chaos. 

Because Good Chaos is not only the secret sauce that fuels creativity, it's also a big part of what makes advertising fun. Anyone who has been inside a pitch room the day before the big presentation knows there are few spaces filled with more kinetic, collaborative, chaotic energy. It's an exciting place to be. The same is true of a brainstorm, the strategy team group chat, the first creative internal. Chaos is scary for some because it's by nature unstructured and unpredictable, but for many creative people that is where we strive. 

So the next time you get asked your process for getting to great creative, please feel free to stick to the standard agency response. But between us, those on the inside who know how thoughts become things, we know what the secret ingredient is.

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Tom Kenny
Tom Kenny is chief strategy officer and partner at Courage.

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