Creativity, Simplicity and Limitations

It can be a tricky thing at a creative agency when clients come to us in search of inspired ideas for an advertising or marketing campaign—even trickier when they come bearing ideas of their own.

While the process of brainstorming and “blue sky-ing” can be fun, I for one am always half-braced for the reality check to set in. Budgets, logistics, technology, staff and other resources: these are the limitations that, in all honesty, are probably going to determine the form of the final product. Yet it sometimes feels like it’s poor form to draw too much attention to them during the brainstorming phase. You’re creative, right? So think big, “think outside the box” and find a way to work around those limitations!

But they’re there. And sometimes we find ourselves in the position of seeing them glaring right at us, and having to gently steer the client away from the inevitable pitfall. The concept they’re pitching is essentially a network TV-quality video ad, but the budget is better suited to candid interviews. It’s a nice thought that if you’re Just Creative Enough, your idea can sidestep the reality check. But the reality is, or rather the risk is, without the necessary resources the finished product may look insubstantial and unconvincing, undermining the credibility of the message and the messenger.

Often in the discussion of potential limitations, the notion of simplicity arises: if the concept is simple, it’s assumed that budgets and the like won’t be an issue. Now, I’m a huge fan of simplicity. By all means, scale back, narrow and tighten the focus, do more by reaching less. The limitations imposed in the making are often what make great art what it is—the removal of too many possibilities.

But simplicity can be deceptive, and things have a way of only looking easy. Take this commercial for Sony Bravia LCD TVs from a few years ago, still one of my all-time favourites in terms of sheer impact, memorability and relevance to the product (the bouncy balls are pixels, see?). In terms of an idea, what could be simpler than flinging 250,000 rubber balls down a hill and filming what happens?

But if you really start to think about the logistics of pulling this off, costs start to add up and the simple idea starts looking anything but. I can only imagine how huge the fees might be for closing off entire streets in a city the size of San Francisco. And considering it was shot in just six takes, I assume it wasn’t one or two top-of-the-line cameras but six or seven, or even more. Here’s an interesting breakdown of the project with some numbers (such as the 50 interns whose only job was gathering balls).

The point is that it takes experience in producing creative work to walk a concept through all the steps required to fulfill it. Being aware of limitations is a good start, but really understanding them—anticipating how they will play out logistically, what challenges will likely arise—is often the unseen force keeping the project from flying off the rails. That’s where we come in.