Advertising is an industry built on belief. What people believe about a brand can quite literally change its fortunes. But it's also built on self-belief - belief that a gorilla playing the drums can catapult an old favourite back to relevance.
But belief can be an unwieldy thing to wrangle. When pursuing the truly original, creativity can take us to difficult places and creatives can find themselves in a challenging spot where their ideas can elicit self doubt or even cringe. That can also be true when looking back at old pieces of work; as creatives grow in their skill and judgement, they may find older projects haunting.
With all of this in mind, LBB’s Addison Capper courted the advice of executive creative directors across the globe for up-and-coming creatives navigating this conundrum, this ‘creative cringe’.
Is there a good way to dampen the negative inner voices or is a bit of self-doubt actually not such a terrible thing? How can creatives learn to discern between the discomfort of doing something truly new - and their guts alerting them to an idea being legless or not worth pursuing? Or, as one of our interviewees so eloquently put it, how do we deal with the three dastardly villains of creativity?
EVP, executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson Atlanta
As creatives, our job is to doubt and second guess. Constantly. We doubt the rules and conventions we are told to stay within. We doubt the timelines. The brief. The feedback (sorry). We doubt the audiences that we’re after will care. We doubt the messages that we’re saying will matter. We doubt if our work is good. If we’re good. If anything is good.
But doubt is a powerful thing. It protects and it can inspire.
Early in your creative career, it’s easy to think that you need to ignore the doubt. That it prohibits you. That you won’t ever get anything done if you keep second guessing and overthinking, that you need to be confident and sure of yourself. The reality is that doubt to a creative is a beautiful thing. Your best friend. It keeps you honest and motivated. If you aren’t doubting, you aren’t caring.
As an up-and-coming creative, own the doubt you feel and hear around you. Never ignore it. Embrace your instinct that makes you cringe, delete, and rip out pages. That’s the only way you’ll know when you’ve got an idea worth sharing (at least until you doubt it and make it better the next day).
Executive creative director at SS+K
Having a trustworthy partner or sounding board is so important to the creative process for young creatives. If just one more person has an emotional response to an idea it often means you’re onto something. For the first several years of my career, my unspoken mission was to make my partner laugh, smile, or sit up and pay attention. If their reaction to an idea was lukewarm, I would know maybe it wasn’t worth pursuing because it didn’t resonate outside of my own brain. And usually the difference between cringe and cool comes down to execution. So if you have an idea that feels out there but exciting, just start getting it out of your brain and down onto a page. Write the script. Write the headline. Write the explanation of how it will work. The act of capturing it in concrete terms will force you to pressure test it and figure out if it really makes sense or not. If it sucks, at least it’s out of your head and you can move on. If it’s still intriguing, then you’re halfway to a halfway decent creative presentation.
Canada ECD at Momentum Worldwide
If you’ve figured out how to dampen the negative inner voices that elicit self-doubt, I’d love to know how. Actually, maybe I don’t. In my mind, self-doubt is a reflection of us comparing ourselves to the people around us who we think are bigger, better, smarter. But the irony of it all is that those people are filled with self-doubt too. Self-doubt can become one of our greatest superpowers if harnessed in the right way because it allows us to question our ideas, to push our thinking in new directions, and ultimately, to flex our creative muscle. As human beings, we are in a constant state of growth. And it’s no different when we think about the work we do. Our work continues to evolve when we push ourselves. But if that self-doubt goes away, and we become hyper confident in every idea we have and in every decision we make, we stunt our growth and ultimately, lose our self-doubt superpower.
Executive creative director at DDB New York
Advertising is a cutthroat industry, and especially with the emergence of new technologies, there is always someone waiting to take your place if you don't deliver. That fear haunts creatives every single day. We’re constantly worried about being replaced by someone (or something) more creative or modern. To stay relevant, creatives must be willing to take risks and try new things. That requires a willingness to embrace the unknown and be unafraid to fail. Self-belief and confidence are essential.
However, it can be challenging to maintain confidence in an industry with numerous approval layers, meetings that alter the work, and research or metrics that serve as proof of creativity. Frustration can easily creep in and make you doubt your instincts. That's why it's crucial to surround yourself with people you trust and admire, people who can provide constructive criticism and improve the work. Finding that safe space gives you the freedom to be your most creative. That’s the best shortcut to building confidence.
Creatives also need to take time for themselves to recharge and reflect. Pauses are incredibly beneficial when you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s crucial to take a break and use your creativity in other ways outside of advertising. We all need avenues to express ourselves without fear or judgment from others. And if none of this works, I always have my therapy sessions on Tuesdays to help me out – highly recommend it.
Executive creative director at McCann Birmingham
There’s a proverb in jiu-jitsu which comes from grand master Carlos Gracie Sr. It goes, ‘In Jiu-Jitsu, there is no losing. You either win or you learn.’ I first heard this as a white belt. And it has followed me through my advertising career. There is no shame in failure or trying something different, and there is everything to gain by learning from our mistakes and moments of self-doubt.
Afterall, a black belt is a white belt that has tapped 10,000 times and has never given up. Just as a creative director/executive creative director is a junior creative who has faced rejection and negative inner voices 10,000 times and never given up. Every time you tap you learn humility, patience and technique. Just like every time you present something that isn’t right for a brief, you learn metaphorically the same. So, forget creative cringe, creative self-doubt, and insecurities. The truth is, you’ll get it wrong, again and again. As we all do. And that’s perfectly cool. Because each time, we learn. And ultimately, get better.
SVP, group creative director at BBH USA
For me, self-belief and self-doubt aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they work simultaneously, especially in our industry. Our job is to come up with crazy ideas that have never been done before AND convince the clients that it’ll be great for their business. It’s not exactly a normal ask... and it would be abnormal not to have a hint of doubt. I’m sure the person who convinced Cadbury to use a drumming gorilla had a few ‘will this even work?’ thoughts.
I’d even say that a little bit of self-doubt can be a good thing if you can harness it. It’s what stops us from being complacent. It’s what helps us push the work and create better ideas. It’s about turning those ‘this isn’t good enough’ to ‘How can I make this better?’ and ‘the client won’t buy this’ to ‘How can I make sure the client can’t say ‘no’?’
Sometimes, self-doubt is just a sign that you’re breaking new ground, because how else do we react to something that’s never existed before? And that’s totally normal.
Nearly every incredible creative I’ve met has had self-doubt at some stage in their career. It’s just about turning the anxiety into your superpower.
Executive creative director at TBWA\Singapore
Creativity is instinctive, personal, and emotional, and as creatives, we are constantly putting our ideas out there to be judged by the world.
A question we’ve all grappled with through the stages of our career is how far you are willing to go to push the boundaries. For me, truly disruptive work comes when you just go for it and remain committed to the cause.
At a junior level, I understand it’s harder to know what is and isn’t cringe as your spidey senses haven’t fully developed. But don’t let this fear get in the way and stop you from having a go and presenting your ideas to your creative director. They may not be perfect, but they may also be something not thought of before, and your creative director can share their experience and shape the idea further. The fear of ridicule and feeling vulnerable is what stops us from putting our ideas forward. A simple solution is to share a good background story to how the idea came about, the inspiration - plus a simple prefix. “This may be completely shit, but there may be something in it…” demonstrates to the creative director how you’re feeling about the work.
When I think about some of the most disruptive campaigns of the past, I’m quite sure the people who created them would have had moments of doubt. Honda ‘Grrr’ is a brilliant piece of film, but I’m sure the creators would have had doubts as to whether the song would have been seen as lame, or whether animation in the auto category would be premium enough. Thankfully, they looked past the doubt and went with it to create one of the most disruptive auto ads ever.
Coinbase’s Super Bowl QR code ad would no doubt have raised some doubt as to whether such a simple execution was befitting of the $7 million dollar media cost and whether QR codes are lame. But it’s for those very reasons that it was the most disruptive ad at the Super Bowl that year and got millions scanning the QR code and going to the brand’s site.
These are just two examples of creatives going out on a limb and being rewarded for it. So, have a go. I’d rather chase something fresh and detour to cringe, than play it safe and end up with average.
EVP, executive creative director at Le Truc
You have to give yourself permission to come up with bad ideas. For example, here are some titles I considered for this little write up before I thought better of it: ‘Puntastic: a guide to advertising wordplay.’ ‘When flatulence humour is fair game.’ ‘When the animals are talking, what are they really saying?’ Fortunately for all of us, the self-critical voice inside of me decided to speak up. It said, ‘For God’s sake, Nick. You’re an executive creative director being asked to impart some kind of wisdom and this all you can do? Shame on you, Nick. Shame!’ So having a voice of doubt is something you should embrace. Because if you don’t defend yourself against a cringeworthy idea, there’s no guarantee somebody else will. In fact, the only thing worse than your creative director judging you for your crap idea, is your creative director thinking it’s actually good. And then the ECD, CCO and client thinking it’s good too. Next thing you know, you’re on set making a puntastic commercial featuring a talking walrus with a flatulence problem. I’m not saying it’s happened to me, but I’m not not saying it either.
Executive creative director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment North America
Creativity has three especially dastardly villains: insecurity, hesitation, and exclusion.
On the first - the generation of safe environments that embrace free and open thinking is intrinsic to the generation of creativity itself (as long as ‘open’ doesn’t morph into ‘offensive’ or ‘culturally toxic’).
On the second - if we don’t take the leap we’ll never find out if we can fly. Maybe we go full Superman… and maybe we face-plant. That’s OK! At least you made something. And, you can learn from it. The opposite action would be inaction, which would result in the world being akin to a blank sheet of drafting paper. If you don’t trust me, trust Tom Morello!
On the third: ask someone. Quick aside - if we call some folks ‘creatives’ we’re telling others they aren’t. How many great ideas or insights are we then missing out on if folks don’t feel empowered to share!? Invite folks into the creative conversation. The more perspectives a creative idea has, the less likely it is to induce cringe, offend or fall flat.
Creative partner at Harbour
It’s harder now for creatives to navigate the path between our inner constructive critic and that ghastly slash and burn saboteur. This, I think, is down to a number of factors.
The isolation of working remotely. At DDB we’d have work up on the walls that fuelled healthy debate. We’d also head to the pub most afternoons evenings. Ideas would be shot down, or nurtured and reshaped. A competitive but highly supportive department. It’s important to meet up with fellow creatives, and this doesn’t have to be in the office.
We’re guilty of becoming lazy editors, and digital hoarders. It’s embarrassing how often I don’t delete a file and instead choose ‘save as’, creating a slightly different version of something that wasn’t great in the first place. Self-editing is key. The overnight test helps here. Like a one-night stand, what seems like a great idea has often lost its gloss come the morning.
The idea that ‘no idea is a bad idea’ is rubbish. A poster I did for a business offering multiple mortgages with the headline ‘SMORTGAGEBOARD’ proves my point. (I know. It’s a shocker.) There are bad ideas. HR asked CDs at M&C Saatchi to be less critical in our creative reviews, as new creatives were not used to critiques. This doesn’t help anyone. Criticism is part of the process. It’s not personal. It’s about the work. Time teaches us how to differentiate between the feeling of a bold, new, risk-taking idea and a godawful one. Until then, ask those whose opinion you rate and whose taste you trust.
VP, Creative director at DEFINITION 6
Creativity is a form of alchemy. It's mysterious, temperamental, and unpredictable. With such a volatile craft as our primary outlet, it's only natural to wake up every morning with the cringing belief that ‘today will be the day they’re going to find out I’m a fraud’. Don't panic; this feeling is a side effect of healthy growth toward creative maturity.
That voice, that inner monologue of doubt, exists to turn the often-violent process of inspiration into a realistic idea, a thoughtful approach, and, ultimately, an effective execution. It wants to know why anyone would want to watch, listen, interact with, or believe in your solution. It wants to make you and your craft better. Without self-examination, you'll be the same creative in ten years as you are today, and for all your great ideas, there will be few great executions to show for it.
Use the doubt as a sounding board for refinement. But above all, never believe it if it tells you you’re not good enough. That the voice exists at all means that you are.
Executive creative director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment London
When thinking about the up-and-coming generation of creative talent, my gut instinct prompts me to question whether they experience these feelings of intimidation when looking back at historic campaigns. Speaking with a number of young creatives in our agency, I heard first-hand what really intimidates them in their ideation and creating thinking. The question which dominates their thinking isn’t centred on living up to past standards, it’s the people they are surrounded by; their peers, partners, those they see eye-to-eye with in the industry. ‘Will my brain ever think like that?’ said one of our creatives when sharing their feelings about their experience of creative competition. They respect work done in the past, and very often use it as reference, but what really intimidates them is seeing someone at the same age or career stage as them having a cracking idea.
Self-doubt and self-criticism easily creep into the creative process, but my encouragement to the new generation of talent would be to use this competitive spirit to supercharge their thinking. While self-doubt can be intimidating, it's also a powerful motivator. It can alert us of ‘bumps on the road’ and identify what to avoid and what to press into, ultimately improving the work. When you feel fear, lean in. Fear is your friend. When a climber fears his journey ahead, they don’t stop climbing, they train more, get fitter, and think strategically to mitigate risks on their journey upwards. They harness self-doubt to make themselves stronger. This next generation has the power to lean into the fear, use self-doubt as motivation, and create something remarkable. The future is bright, and I can't wait to see what we'll build together.