Instinct vs strategy: how to harness your creative fire for commercial clients

I became a designer in the early 90s. At that time, there was a buzz in the industry that had never been seen before, and creative-led studios like V23, Tomato, Attik, and Designer's Republic dominated.

Designer's Republic, in particular, carved out a new era of design. It seemed to do it all – from big brand work to niche, experimental stuff. It was a creative agency that also sold commercial art, today held in some of the biggest art galleries in the world (the MOMA and the V&A to name a couple). Back then, designers could be rock stars. We had fire in our bellies. It felt like genuine firsts were happening.

In my third year at Central St Martins, I went for an interview at design collective Tomato. At the time, the band Underworld were part of the collective and they worked out of the top floor of Tomato's building in Soho. The studio worked within a grey area – doing stuff like dubmyheadwithnobassman for Underworld one day and selling a million-pound idea to Volkswagen the next. There was no talk of strategy, or customer acquisition and retention. They were selling art, and the clients were buying art.

As creatives we want to create art. But as creatives who want to keep our jobs, we also need to keep our clients happy. The success of our work has to be measurable, and/or actually sell products. It’s no longer enough to simply find your fire. You need to know how to harness it, and keep it going to scalable and profitable effect.

As the industry has matured, our survival has depended on understanding what our fire is, what makes our work potent, and what keeps our clients coming back. Crucially, we've had to learn how to make the argument for art to the non-creative, chief executive pragmatist in the room.

Understanding what makes you great is a balance of instinct and strategy, and it's a fine balance. Too much analysis knocks the guts out of the magic. A true master of this is Peter Saville. He has creative fire and knows how to harness it – to the point of transcending all normal processes. In 2006 Adidas briefed him (as an artist, not a designer) to reimagine its Adicolor boot, which came out that same year. Saville was cynical about Adidas leveraging his good name in order to sell more products, and decided that the brief was flawed. That was his response to the brief.

The boot remained untouched, except for the laces – upon which Saville made a series of statements about brands capitalising on the profile of artists to sell more stuff. He still got paid. Perfect.

Another great example is David Hieatt, who left the ad industry in the 90s to set up a brand called Howies, which was heralded as the Patagonia of the UK, before he sold it to Timberland. He used the proceeds from the sale to start a denim company in Wales, where a local factory had been shut down. His goal was to make sustainable denim but mainly to give 400 people their jobs back. He has recently moved back into the original factory building (which was the largest jeans factory in Europe).

In 2007, Hieatt also started the infamous ‘Do Lectures’. The annual festival encourages entrepreneurs to get together, and talk about how they can use their position and profile to do good – regardless of where they are in their entrepreneurial endeavours. Hieatt harnessed his fire to help others to ‘understand how much they can achieve in life’. The event has been so successful that rumour has it the Do Lectures lost a number of corporate sponsors because their employees would attend the festival, return to their jobs, and resign immediately.

I recently spoke to someone who had just disbanded their agency, and while there were all sorts of other market factors potentially to blame, it just felt like they had fallen out of love with what they did. Perhaps they lost touch with that fire that made them start up, or maybe they didn’t understand how to harness it in the first place.

We've all got that fire in the beginning. Most creative businesses start off with huge passion and instinct. We certainly did 12 years ago, when were just four designers in a garage in Bethnal Green. It’s keeping it that’s the trick.

The lesson here is just as relevant for brands/CMOs as it is for creatives. Fire and instinct alone is unsustainable, and strategy alone has no soul. You should work at, and for, businesses who live and breathe this idea. Those who work for love with the same drive as they work for their clients. Use these companies as tools to spark fire in your own brand. Work with people who really get that there is a unique privilege in having a job where what you create can have an effect on the lives of others. It is magical to think you are doing something that might be seen by millions, and there’s something exhilarating about having the potential to make the world a better place – if only slightly.

A lot has changed since the 90s, but I’m feeling the same buzz for the industry now as I did then. Almost anything is possible. Generative design, AI, VR and AR are creating new worlds for designers (and brands) to evolve in. It might sound like a cliche, but as a business, if you’re not working with people who have a genuine love, passion and drive for what they do and why they do it, they aren’t going to succeed in this new world in ways that people who’ve found their fire can.

David Johnston is the founder of Accept & Proceed

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