To orientate your details, or to not orientate your details. That is the question.

I have a confession to make: I am not detail orientated.

I have another confession to make: I am very detail orientated.

It’s an interesting trait, in that it’s part of almost all job descriptions I ever read, yet no one really discusses it, and it seems to now be some assumed skill that all managers should possess, but I think it’s not quite that simple.

Chris Rock has an interesting point (about 3:30 here) where he says he’s conservative on some issues and liberal on others:

That chimes with me because I feel like ‘detail orientated’ isn’t a single ability that covers everything. Some things, usually the ones that interest you most, can elicit a different level of attention. For me that usually happens when I’m writing, when a decision between a semi colon and a comma can cause me to fret for hours.

But for much of the rest of my career I have been non-D.O., and proud of it. That’s because I think the process of creativity requires both big picture perspective, and a certain degree of pixel fucking.

The advertising creative process can be seen as a kind of funnel, where there is room for your biggest, widest thoughts at the beginning, but also ‘move that VO a gnat’s to the left’ at the end. Concept vs execution, you might say. 

(It might also be copywriting vs art direction, where the former leans a bit more towards the front of the process, while the latter comes in more in the later parts of telecine colour shades and picking up all the minuscule errors that need to be covered up in post. A bit of a generalisation, but I think it holds.)

I’m not saying that I am less focused on detail by choice, but I’ve also seen much creativity strangled by the need/want to fixate on things no consumer will ever notice at the expense of the bigger picture.

Advertising creativity works in a very finite box of time, resources and money. You can’t do everything forever, so you must pick and choose your battles. Hours and hours on getting a cough exactly right might not be worth the sacrifice in other parts of the sound session.

Then again, I entirely get that a tiny detail can elevate an ad from B- to A+. The tricky thing is that there’s no right or wrong about any of those decisions, so maybe those three frames would be better on that take, but maybe it won’t make any difference. 

To illustrate that point, an anecdote: a while back I was involved in a wide-ranging project in which we decided to give a small budget to lots of creators instead of a big budget to one. In theory we would have a fascinating campaign that would approach the product from many different angles.

I worked on this project with the person I would describe at the biggest pixel-fucker I’ve ever met, and he wanted to control the process as much as possible (I should add that we worked for an agency that prided itself on fucking pixels till the cows came home, and he was the tip of that spear). I have to say that this project was probably his kryptonite, in that we had neither the time nor the money to address every single issue to his satisfaction. Anyway, he orientated his details while I tried to keep tabs on the overall communication. 

The funny thing was, we had so many projects on the go that one of them was simply forgotten. We literally never followed up with the directors while they got on with making their ad. Then it arrived unexpectedly one day and was absolutely brilliant. From the minimum of attention to detail (ie: zero) we allowed people to spread their wings and give us their best without sitting on their shoulders and criticising everything. It actually stood up to another film we were making at the same time for the same product, which had 100x the budget and twenty creative people fiddling about with every frame.

So you can skip the detail orientation and let the magic happen. In fact, sometimes, that’s exactly what you should do.

Another job I finished a while back involved my boss kind of taking over the edit. He saw our cut then spent hours moving frames here and there. Now, I get that he thought he was improving things, but after an hour or so I couldn’t see the difference he was making. Was it better? Maybe to him. Would any consumer notice? Almost certainly not. Was it worth the extra consequences where we then felt he didn’t like the job we had done, or resented his meddling? Dunno. In that second hour I began to think he was just insecure, and making these changes because he didn’t know what he was doing. In the end we had an ad that was broadly the same, but a reduced level of respect for the boss. #Consequences.

I’ve written before about how some of the greatest films of all time were made on the fly: Godard would literally write the script for A Bout De Souffle on the morning of filming, changing the plot as he went along; Fellini would direct as the actors were acting, shouting so many instructions that all the dialogue had to be replaced in post, compromising the authenticity of the sound; and many a film has been reworked in the edit to sort out an initial mess that happened despite so much D.O.

Then again, you have David Fincher’s method, where he will use post production to perfect the most mundane of shots. Stanley Kubrick would routinely demand 70+ takes to ensure a line of dialogue was correct. In Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa hired a team of professional archers to shoot real arrows at Toshiro Mifune so that his reactions would be authentic. Mifune had nightmares about it for months after filming.

So I guess there’s a case to be made for details vs non-details. Perhaps that’s why you need two or more creatives, some of whom sweat the small stuff while others focus on the bigger picture. 

The problem now is that the fragmentation of media means that there are so many more executions that need attention. I’ve done social campaigns where lines have been placed in illegible positions. Was the art director being lax, or did he just not have enough time to concentrate on 100+ shapes and sizes? Doing that requires yet another D.O. skill set, one that can apply attention to detail over and over again in a limited amount of time, but how many people are good at that?

Yes, someone is paying for us to make everything as perfect as possible, but now there is a much greater chance of things slipping between the cracks, partly because there are so many more cracks, but also because spotting those cracks can become exhausting, and it’s a very different art director ability to choosing the perfect photographer or shaping an edit.

Supposed detail orientation covers so many different skills and brain types, all working in a limited space, that it’s an irresponsible ask.

Then again, I just say I am very D.O. because sometimes I am, and if the person hiring isn’t detail orientated enough to pick me up on that, well that’s just the perfect lesson in why it’s not quite what it seems.