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How chaos can be the right tool for a sharp creative output

Chaos and the creative journey

“The seeming chaos of a brief wasn’t necessarily a prelude to disaster or a ditch in which I needed to fall into and never get out. The chaos could well be a huge opportunity in the journey towards an amazing piece of creative", writes Mark Mcdonald, executive vice president and creative head at Digitas India.

The brief was vague. To put it mildly.

“We have a full-page ad that the publication (a leading newspaper) is giving us as compensation for a screw-up at their end, please use it to do a range ad”, said the client.

In this case, the client was the State’s largest retailer of steel, with over 10,000 products ranging from nuts and bolts to fences, patios, and sheds. So, when they said range, which range were they referring to? The nuts-and-bolts range, the fences range, the patios range, or something else?

“You know the brand as well as we do, you decide”, was the client’s response.

With a hard-stop material deadline looming nearer, we posed one final question to them - Does it ‘have’ to be a range ad? Answer- Not necessarily. And now we’d well, and truly, hit a wall – Do a range ad that isn’t necessarily a range ad! As was usually the case when my then art partner and I hit a wall, we decided to go find another one, lean against it, grab a smoke, and discuss how cruel life can often be.

Around about the fourth cigarette, I turned to my partner and said – I do not know what this has to with anything, but you know what would look really cool – a top shot of a swimming pool that takes up the entire full page. He nodded his head in agreement and said, you know what else, they have a really cool range of pool fences. And that little seed of an idea ended up giving rise to one of the best ads we’d both done. It went on to win pretty much every local award show, quite a few international ones, and got us both a fully paid trip to the Cannes festival. All from a job that started with the vaguest of briefs.

What’s the point?

No, it’s not to keep briefs vague. Quite the opposite – as an agency and team, you need to have a rock-solid process in place that gathers all the information and distills it down to a clear, sharp brief. That is non-negotiable. If you do not have that in place you are going to be in big trouble, sooner rather than later.

What I am talking about is something different. Every once in a frequent while, agency teams will face situations where the information is scattered, the knowledge comes in dribs and drabs, and clarity is replaced by chaos. You know what I’m talking about, you’ve been there many a time. So, have I. And I absolutely hated it when that happened.

Slowly, however, I began to accept it as a necessary part of the job. But God, I still hated it! It was only later, as the incident I began this article with, started happening more frequently than I realized something completely different. The seeming chaos of a brief wasn’t necessarily a prelude to disaster or a ditch in which I needed to fall into and never get out. It is something else.

A huge opportunity, but one that came disguised in the garb of chaos. It was an opportunity to keep an open mind, dig a little deeper, ask a few more questions, and table ideas/half-ideas, and even ideas that seemed to make no sense initially. And then evaluate them to see if they were in fact, the beginnings of an amazing piece of creative.

Every vague client answer or idea-bombing session then took on a completely different flavor. They were not precursors of doom, but quite the opposite, they were all little doors opening up, asking you to step in and explore a little more, ideate a little more, question a little more. And the result, almost always, was a solution that was way, way better than anything you first started with.

In other words, embracing chaos, was far more productive and fruitful than shunning it, avoiding it, or dreading it.

Don’t get me wrong, not for a moment am I saying this is easy. It’s not. What we do for a living is something very hard. We have to come up with ideas, day after day, (more like, night after night), under immense pressure, and then do it all over again. And guess what, to make things just a little harder, our pattern-searching, habit-forming brains aren’t wired to think that way – they are wired to seek comfort and safety, and then stay there. Creativity is doing exactly the opposite. So no, this is not easy at all.

But what makes all the difference, is a mindset, a mindset that recognizes chaos for what it is - that bumpy part of the road, that rocky section of a trail – that you don’t have to fear, you just need to plan for it, and navigate it carefully, because at the other end lies an experience and view so amazing, that you’d gladly trek the rocky path, again and again, just to experience the view.

This job, and the world we live in, is getting increasingly more complex and chaotic, but there’s no need to let that throw us off our game. Because under the chaos and uncertainty, lies amazing opportunities and rewards. One just needs to hold fast, not let the seeming chaos get to you, and dig a little deeper. And trust me, once you learn to relish and embrace it, it’s only a matter of time before you taste the rewards.

Because at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than the proverbial opportunity knocking at your door. It just happens to be dressed in overalls.

(Chaos Theory - Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos — dynamical systems whose apparently random states of disorder and irregularities are actually governed by underlying patterns and deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions (read – initial mindsets.)

The author is executive vice president and creative head, Digitas India.