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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Replacing Fear with Freedom: Lessons from the advertising environment

Scattered Pencils

- Paul Mooney

When was the last time you saw a television commercial that really made you laugh or, even less likely, positively affected your feelings towards a product? If you can actually recall that happening, I imagine the experience was so extraordinary that the ad in question springs immediately to mind. Most of the time, we either ignore ads or spend the time on something more interesting and less annoying, such as using the restroom. Ads share the same themes and gimmicks, and tend to detract from the reason you are probably watching television in the first place: relaxation and entertainment. Perhaps if we could make advertising tell an actual story, make it more entertaining, we might not mind it so much?

One of the biggest reasons why you see the same formulaic car commercials and unfunny talking babies is fear. Plain and simple. Granted, there is a level of fear in every job: fear of getting fired, fear of failure, fear of being passed over for promotion, etc. Accounts are precious and competition is tight across many industries, and we will never be able to completely eliminate the concept of fear within business. In fact, some industries feed off the competition concept and the resultant internal fear, pushing the employees to work harder and faster. There’s a good reason why former Intel CEO called his book Only The Paranoid Survive. Those fears may be considered key sources of motivation in other industries, but they are a huge hindrance in advertising.

While advertising is a business, at its core it is supposed to be creative. So when basic business fears start to overwhelm the need to be creative, new ideas fall by the wayside in favor of what is safe. And, in creative terms, "safe" is just another word for "formulaic," "boring," or, at the very worst, "that annoying talking pig from the insurance ads that seems to be doing pretty well." Efforts to avoid those pitfalls receive a great deal of lip-service, but there's rarely any support for any idea that doesn't immediately make the client happy with a clear path to profit, which means it usually something we’ve seen work before. It is the “that’s they way we’ve always done things” philosophy in its most paralyzing form.

Without the room for risk and the leeway that risk gives people, no path exists for otherwise imaginative employees to take but the ones that have already been well-traveled. Fear of losing the account stifles creativity.

These issues might seem exclusive to advertising at first glance, but there are parallels and lessons that have relevance in every industry. If companies hope to cultivate new, fresh ideas they must allow their employees room to experiment and go out on limbs. The bottom line matters, obviously, but it must not fully overshadow creativity. Creativity is what sparks new, even more profitable products or services.

Ask yourself these four questions to see how well you are supporting creative freedom in your company and whether you have made that freedom a priority:

  • Do all of your employees know your mission and the story behind it? Making sure everyone is on the same page will give them a solid foundation to try new things and different approaches.

  • Do you actively and frequently encourage new ideas? The mechanism will vary from company to company. It could be project groups, contests, or something else. The point is to ask and to respect the outcomes.

  • Are you too close to a particular product or idea? If you are heavily or personally invested in a project or team it may be time for you to bring in an outsider for fresh input and consultation.

  • How do you reward or punish failure? Your team may be afraid to try something new, based on how you handled a past failed campaign or product.

I'm certainly not advocating that failure should always be forgiven. But there is a world of difference between someone who is bad at his or her job and someone who shoots for the moon and sometimes falls short. It's important that people not only have the chance to make a mistake every now and then, but they are well aware that they have those chances. It doesn't have to be a written policy or physical trophy. Management needs to make creative freedom a priority and learn to tell the difference between the risk takers and the poor employees. You cannot coax innovation through the old, simple "carrot and stick" method. Even when someone doesn't deserve a carrot, they shouldn't automatically get the stick.

So the next time you're gritting your teeth while enduring at yet another lazily misogynistic beer commercial, pity the poor copywriter who sits at a desk somewhere, essentially not allowed to write anything else. And think about whether or not you putting your employees in a similarly suppressed state of mind. Are you giving them the creative breathing room they need and allowing them to tell a fresh story, or are they just making more of what you’ve seen before? Keep yourself and your teams focused on the things you're striving for and not the things that might hold you back.

Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background mixing film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City.

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