Creativity on a Shoestring Budget

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Powerful ideas are amazingly flexible.

I enjoyed many years in the advertising business as a creative director. Creativity is much talked about today in the broader world outside of advertising, thanks to the popularity of design thinking, which transfers many of the tools and thought processes originating in the advertising and design fields into the disciplines of business strategy, technology innovation, and process improvement, among many others.

Creative thinking in any discipline does not happen in a vacuum, and one of the more common ingredients in the mix is a limited budget, often combined with its twin dread, limited time.

Years ago, the late Dallas illustrator, author, and book collector George Toomer coined a phrase that stuck with me. He said, “Beware of clients who operate on a shoestring because it is usually your shoestring.”

Many in the advertising, marketing, and PR fields struggle to establish the credibility and recognition necessary to be compensated at a level commensurate with other professional services. Design thinkers in other fields may be similarly starved by shortsighted organizations.

Maybe it isn’t a shoe after all

Movie producer, Joseph E. Levine, said, “You can fool all of the people all the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough.” Oh, the miracles we could perform with more significant resources and more time, but that is seldom the case.

Part of a creative director’s job is to ask out-of-the-box questions. The old joke is, “How many creative directors does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “Does it have to be a light bulb?”

If we are indeed operating on a shoestring budget, maybe shoes are out of the question. Perhaps consumers would be better served by a message about sandals or a list of nearby beaches where bare feet are enjoyable. When matching the budget to a predetermined deliverable isn’t possible, it might still be feasible to deliver value to the consumer in a different and equally excellent manner.

Ideas cost you nothing

Advertising legend Bill Bernbach is purported to have said, “Ninety percent of the battle is what you say, and ten percent is what medium you say it in.” This view doesn’t diminish the importance of execution. In my experience, a great idea rendered simply is far superior to a mediocre idea on steroids.

In my days in the agency business, it was common to hear something like this from a designer, “I just saw an exquisite new printing technique, and I would love to use it on our next brochure.” This thought process is a classic case of the cart (execution) leading the horse (idea). Techniques become confused with desired outcomes.

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 2.37.52 PMMarketing materials that deliver a powerful punch for the budget begin with the destination in mind. Remember that brilliant ideas cost you nothing except your time, energy, and smarts. (Those ideas should cost your client plenty, by the way.) A compelling idea, correctly targeted, rarely needs an expensive delivery medium.

When you don’t have a robust budget, the next best thing is time to let your inner resources work, studying the problem, talking with colleagues, and experimenting with ideas.

Researchers claim that you can improve your chances of solving a problem by 20 percent just by standing up. So, take the time to stand, go jogging, soak in a warm bath. All of these activities are budget neutral.

Once you have a genuinely original and motivating idea, execution becomes a matter of choosing between delivery techniques, and one method can be discarded for another if the budget requires. Powerful ideas are amazingly flexible.

Don’t be tricked into compromising quality

There is a truism in the advertising agency business. Clients will always remember whether a campaign worked, long after they have forgotten whether you met the timeline or the budget. Compromising quality to hit impossible deadlines or shoestring budgets will never earn you long-term admiration and loyalty from a client or a boss.

I feel sorry for creative thinkers who build their careers on being able to do things on the cheap. As their clients mature and become more sophisticated, those clients will almost always go looking for someone who has built their business on doing things well.

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