Where Did The Time Go?

Have a listen to Dave Dye’s interview with Malcolm Venville. It’s full of great stuff, but there’s a particular detail that caught my ear: they met on a shoot that required three still images of a motorbike. That shoot lasted four weeks.

Which reminded me that advertising creativity used to be given so much time. Maybe a month for three photographs was a little extravagant, but maybe it wasn’t. It sounds like it was, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure (of course it was).

I never spent a month on one shot (I did go to Miami to take a picture of a woman who was supposed to be on a British beach. Another story for another time) but I do remember getting longer to work on briefs than I generally get today.

In 2022 everything is needed for some kind of review in two or three days, and that’s not great for great creativity.

Here’s an absolute truth about coming up with ideas: the longer you have to do it, the more ideas you can come up with, and the more ideas you come up with, the greater the chance that your best idea will improve.

Your best idea can still end up being the first one you had, but the extra time you spent trying to improve it won’t do any harm; in fact, you might come up with lots more lesser ideas that either help you hone the good one, or give you the confidence to know that, having explored other ground, the first one is still the winner.

On the side of that, you need time to develop ideas. If you come up with a cool central concept (or ‘platform’ as the uber uber ideas are now called), time will give you the opportunity to then come up with the best executional expressions of that concept. The more headlines you write, the greater the chance of your best five being great, and that goes for every executional element: stories, casting, direction, layouts, typography etc. 

And in this time of needing dozens of executions in many media, that need for time is even more pressing. You ought to multiply the time requirement by the number of executions, but instead we tend to divide it, exacerbating the problem.

The other reason you need time is that it is essential to give your subconscious a while to try to solve the problem. As Don Draper explains, when you work on an ad you have to think about the brief deeply, then forget it, then an idea will jump up in your face:

And that takes time – both the thinking deeply and the forgetting, but also watching the idea jump up, then writing it down, then talking to your partner about it, then taking on their improvement suggestions etc. Shrink those days and you don’t even give creatives enough time to do that bare minimum process. Of course we can come up with something in the truncated time frame, but McDonald’s can also come up with an entire lunch in the time it takes Le Gavroche to whip up a marinade. Speed rarely leads to quality, unless you are Usain Bolt.

Some of you may be thinking that extra days or weeks might lead to stewing on an idea, thus corrupting its original novelty value with overthinking. Or you might get bored of something good, sending it to the bottom of your list of favourites, perhaps even killing it. But I don’t think that happens much, and even if it did, you then have to show your ideas to other people, and they’ll be seeing them for the first time, replenishing the novelty value all over again. And you’d need quite a while to get bored of a really good idea/headline etc. We all like great ads from the past that we’ve seen many, many times.

I’d guess there’s a limit, and we all know that deadlines can really get your juices flowing, but as a rule, more time=better work.

Counter to this truism, the timeframe has been shrinking for decades. What used to be a week became three days, then two days, then one. Even on a big brief, a review is almost always expected within 72 hours, and you now have to spend time getting your work in presentable form, which always means a motherfucking deck, complete with some good imagery that you have to spend time finding. Add that time to the review itself and you’ve used up half a day or more prepping instead of thinking (sure, some of the prepping is executional thinking, but it’s still an overall interruption).

We’re also aware that it sometimes takes three months to write a brief, leaving just three days to answer it, and that seems insane, especially when 90% of briefs these days hardly appear to be the result of three months of stellar thinking. I was once told to hold on briefing my department while the strategy director went back and forth with her boss, improving the brief almost imperceptibly. I chose to ignore that and immediately gave my creatives what I was sure the brief would end up being. That added three valuable days to their thinking time.

Strategy departments… We want just half of one of your three months to do justice to your superlative thinking. You know it makes sense!

So why don’t we give that incredibly important part of the process the time it needs to produce excellence? You know the answer! Come on… altogether now… Money! Time is money, so a reduction to the number of chargeable hours makes the agency management happy because it makes the client happy. You charge less and, well, you get less: less time, which leads to lesser ideas. As I pointed out above, that’s a rock-solid, ocean-going, unfuckwithable, 24-carat-platinum rule.

In summary, time has been reduced and ads have become worse. Are there other reasons for the lowering of standards? Absolutely (just check this forensic dissection of client briefing from the great Mark Ritson) Does that mean the time thing isn’t a big deal? Absolutely not.

The last decade has seen the weakening of all the struts that hold up the creative process: time, money, focus, mentorship, high standards, protection, talent etc., and we’ve all seen the work get worse. Night has followed day, and here we are. I guess the question is, how much further can things fall?

Only time will tell.