Art & Commerce: Give It Some Thought

In 2008, let’s all make an effort to overthink it a little more. Yes, you read that correctly, overthink it. If you ask me, overthinking it gets a bad wrap in our industry today. Sure, overthinking can cause bouts of paralysis, blindness, paranoia and co-worker alienation (especially of your creative partner), not to mention lead to can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees syndrome, nervous twitching, nail biting and sweaty palms, followed by the occasional case of lack-of-sense-of-humoritis and an inexplicable sense of self-righteousness (OK, perhaps this one is just me). But overthinking, if you commit to it, and I mean really commit to it, will inevitably also produce positive things like clarity, vision and a feisty, competitive, unshakable sense of confidence—confidence that is indispensable when it comes to selling your ideas to your clients. Yes, overthinking is a valid and effective form of reaching for the stars, and it’s time it got the respect it deserves.

Seriously, in my opinion, agency people don’t do enough thinking these days anyway, so the danger of overthinking—if you prefer to think of it as a danger—is pretty slim. And I’m not just talking about the new kids in the business. You know, the ones we like to accuse of having been babied too much, having grown up in an environment where everyone received trophies for showing up for soccer practice. I’m talking about the smug baby boomers and Gen Xers I see with their feet up on their desks, too. Last week, I overheard a young creative director talking to an older writer who’d won a bunch of awards back in the day. The kid told him, “It was easy back then, you could write “Windex cleans glass” and win a One Show Pencil. Things were different. It wasn’t as hard.” My guess is that, yes, things were different then, but it was just as hard as it is now. The challenge today lies not in the myth that the times are more difficult, but in the fact that most people just aren’t interested in doing the extra work required of great advertising. Instead, they want to rely solely on things like instinct, personal taste and experience. And why not? It’s less stressful and requires less work, which means it leaves a lot more time for juggling your fantasy football roster, playing online poker or catching up on bloggers’ gossip.

Unfortunately, creating great advertising is never that easy, which is probably why most of the ads you see are forgettable and annoying. Great ideas come from great insight and great insight comes from information. Information that’s been personally collected, stored and ruminated on by you. There are no shortcuts. Information is gathered from researching, thinking and rethinking about your client’s business. Sometimes this information helps you to get the ideas. Sometimes this information helps you to reject ideas. And sometimes this information helps you to revise and revise and revise the ideas. Regardless, the process of overthinking is essentially always good.

But don’t take my word for it.

James Webb Young, who was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1974, knew this. In his famous book A Technique for Producing Ideas, there’s a chapter entitled “Constantly Thinking About It.” Read it if you have the chance; it’s a short book and gives you plenty to think about. And then there’s Bob Dylan, who, in the middle of a recording session, would often sit alone for four or five hours at a time, revising lyrics while everyone else played Ping-Pong or pool. Also, Linus Pauling, the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes (one for chemistry and one for peace,) is famous for having said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” Linus was clearly an overachiever and most certainly an overthinker.

So this year, let’s not be afraid to overthink. Go ahead, continue to ask questions even when the bosses have decided that the time for questions has passed. Dig into some of those hefty research binders that someone thought “might be helpful.” Keep a pad and flashlight on your nightstand for late-night ideas, During your daughter’s recital, send ideas to yourself via text message. Jot down a visual idea on a napkin while having dinner with friends. Be creative. Have fun. Think.

I’m not suggesting that you disconnect from societal obligations or ignore your loved ones; I’m asking you to embrace them. Learn to capitalize on those few precious, serendipitous occasions when your life and the project you are working on align themselves for one brief moment to spark something great.