How Good Are You?

The other day I was reading this excellent dive into the nature, consequences and acceptance of mediocrity, and it got me thinking: when it comes to creative advertising, how do we know how good we are?

You might think such a thing can be (and often is) measured in awards, but even something so (kind of) objective isn’t exactly clear. How recently did you win them? Did you come up with the central idea? The endline? The choice of editor? The choice of edit? Was it for craft or concept? Did you only ever win in print? Does that make you worse? Better? Just different? Was it an easy year? Has your award-winner stood the test of time? Do your ’75 international awards’ include easier pickings like New York Festivals? Does a Bronze at Creative Circle really place you above someone who simply didn’t bother entering their work in an obscure category they might have dominated? Is a Graphic Design Silver at D&AD better than a Pet Food Digital Silver at Cannes? Remember when the internet was just getting going, and any shitty rich banner could win a Pencil?

And if you know how to game all those awards, to the extent that you win 20% more than the team next door that doesn’t care about them, does that make you better? What if you only win awards but are crap at pitches? What if you have many shiny prizes but have never made anything truly famous? What if you’ve made several truly famous things but won no awards?

What if you can only crack one in ten briefs, but when you do it you win every prize going? What if you manage a solid 7.5/10 on every brief? What if you’re always asked to work on pitches because you always win them, but your work never gets made, so you never win a single award?

What if you’re brilliant at creativity but shit at management? What if you win all the awards going but your start-up tanks? What if you’re too mercurial to and impatient to nurture younger teams? What if you’re amazing at developing juniors but shit at developing award-winning ads? What if you’re great at both, but you’re dreadful in client meetings?

We’ve all seen what my former AD used to refer to as ‘shit survivors’: the people who manage to rise through the ranks despite an absence of any discernible talent. Many of us have also seen hidden geniuses: the ones who consistently come up with the brilliant leaps of imagination but are poor at claiming the credit, selling themselves, or working out who or what could get them a raise or promotion. Being ‘good’ is a decent guide to career progression, but is no guarantee. Nor is being ‘shit’ a guaranteed impediment. Nor is being rude, mean, sexist, racist, or the owner of a pair of wandering hands.

A few years ago I worked with someone who was far and away the worst CD I’d ever met. He was awful at communicating, had dreadful standards, was pitiful at inspiring the people around him, and was basically a talentless, tedious, annoying arse (by the way, if you’re one of the CDs I’ve worked for over the last few years and think I’m talking about you, I’m not; I’ve slightly disguised the culprit, but he/she is 100% real). At one point at got so bad that, despite being in a freelance position, I actually complained to his boss, who explained that she was not going to do anything about him because everyone else liked him. Now, this was not true; every other creative who worked under him also thought he was a dildo, but the account people and strategists liked him because he was very adept at knowing on which side his bread was buttered, and how to ensure the butter was that lovely French stuff that has little salt crystals in it. Does that mean he was ‘good’? In a sense, yes; in another sense, no.

In many cases gumption is just as important as conceptual brilliance. A person that is good at getting things made and thinking up the things to make is incredibly valuable, but also very rare. But you might be more likely to find them in a team: the thinker and the doer, both equally essential. Is one better than the other? I think many of us would see the concept creator as the more valuable, but when it comes down to it, the gumption partner is just as important.

Teams can also be broken down into ‘brilliant creative’ and ‘brilliant PR’, the latter being the one who gets pally with the CD/traffic/Eliza at Creative Review and ensures that they not only get the best briefs, but also the opportunities to let the industry know about how they turned those briefs into great ads. Is one of these people better than the other? Indeed: both are.

Another essential skill is the ability to spot where the tide is going, and how to make the most of its motion. It might make sense to burn bridges and annoy people in the aim of winning awards earlier in your career, but then you have to be aware of what’s coming over the horizon. You want to stay at your agency even though they’re making staff cuts, so it might be better to be mediocre and popular rather than brilliant and disliked. And if you want to start your own agency, it might be harder to persuade a great account person and strategist to join you. Then again, if you don’t have enough good ads behind you, they might not care if you’re nice or not. So should you avoid heated arguments that make your ads 9/10 instead of 8.75? Impossible to say, but I can easily name brilliant creatives who were kicked to the kerb, and more mediocre ones that have climbed to the very top of the tree. Which was ‘better’?

So there you go. Nothing conclusive to help you in any way, but perhaps some food for thought. There’s no definitive good because the job, and advancing within it, requires many different skills and a bit of luck. So if you have yet to win a D&AD Gold or a Cannes Grand Prix, make your peace, scan that horizon, and find another path to whatever it is you’re looking for.

You might be much better at something that’s much better for you.