Is There a Statute Of Limitations On Creative Ideas?

Just recently, I heard from an art director that I’d been teamed with years ago. We had a good run as a CW/AD team and were lucky enough to get into several of the major awards shows and books for some of the projects we’d worked on. The reason for her call was in regard to one of those award-winning ads.

In the latest CA Design Annual there’s a piece that was done by a mid-western design shop and it’s a dead ringer for an invitation she and I did in 2001. Same concept, same size, same color, same library card and pocket, same typeface, same type of client, they even added a small rubber stamp mark, similar to ours. Did someone at this firm see our piece in an award annual and “borrow” it? Honestly, I think they did. It just seems too close to be a coincidence. Our situation certainly isn’t unique. You see work that looks familiar all the time. But it got me to thinking about what it takes to do great creative.

New ideas take work…hard work. The more ideas you come up with, the better your chances of getting to something good. Develop lots of ideas. And if something seems a little too far out there, you’re probably getting to a good place. The best ideas make you question yourself. If you’re not sure if it’s brilliant or it’s bullshit, then you’re probably on to something.

The same percentage theory works for headlines. The more headlines you write, the better your chances of getting a good one. Doesn’t matter whether it’s for an ad, a billboard or a web page. You can write 8 different headlines or you can write 80. Chances are the person who wrote 80 has better lines to choose from. It also holds true for art directors regarding typefaces and layouts. The more things you try, the more you experiment, the better the odds of hitting on something good.

You always hear people say things like “There’s no new ideas” or “Everything’s been done before”. I don’t buy it. Take the music video for example. How many of those have you seen? Hundreds? Thousands? What on earth could anyone do that was different in a music video? Check out Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait” at it’s original. And pretty damn amazing considering they used existing technology but just looked at it in a new way.

Probably the key ingredient in great creative is time. And there never seems to be enough of it. When the timeframe on a project is tight, you have to make the most of it. Talk to anyone who’s ever worked at a shop where they do great creative work and they’ll tell you about the long hours that get put in. When I was just starting in the business and working night and day, we’d sometimes call other well-known creative agencies in the middle of the night. We figured if we’re working, let’s see if they are. Didn’t matter whether it was 11 pm or 3 am, somebody picked up the phone.

Honestly, that kind of commitment isn’t for everyone. And I’m not advocating that kind of schedule. But the reality is these are some of the things it often takes to get great creative work. Or you can just look through some old advertising awards annuals until you find something similar to the project you’re working on. It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened. And you might even win an award for your copied ad. If the idea was strong enough to make the awards books the first time, maybe it’s good enough to get into the books again. That is, if you just wait long enough.