Some great creative ideas get killed by process—not people

—Eric Blais reflects on the late great Per Pedersen’s observation that the industry suffers because it has to put up with “shit from people that don’t love creativity.”—

I read obits, and I especially enjoy those of legendary advertising people. They are most interesting and instructive for those of us in the ad world.

Like effective advertising, obits need to capture much in a few words, often reducing long and productive careers to a few defining thoughts and works.

When Dan Wieden died last September, the Washington Post’s obit read: “Dan Wieden, adman who coined ‘Just Do It’ for Nike, dies at 77.” The idea was inspired by an atypical source: The final words of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore.

Laurel Cutler, who passed away in November 2021, was one of the first women to rise to the top of advertising. The New York Times’ obit said that she “cracked the glass ceiling at a time when women were rarely seen in the executive suite.”

The most interesting part for me—and even more so after last year’s news about Lisa Laflamme’s firing—was this: “When Ms. Cutler was in her 20s, her hair started turning prematurely grey. Clairol, one of her clients, nudged her to colour it. But that would have required her to spend three hours every three weeks at the hairdresser—too much time, she decided. She stayed grey and eventually lost the Clairol account.”

Per Pedersen, who spent most of his career at Grey before launching the by The Network ad cooperative, died earlier this month.

The Wall Street Journal’s obit was headlined “Per Pedersen Aimed to Change the Face of Advertising,” and included this passage: “We have the power to create the creative industry we want to work in,” which he wrote last year in a LinkedIn post. “Problem is, we put up with too much shit from people that don’t love creativity.”

I have a great deal of respect for Pedersen, his work and his legacy, but I gave much thought to this observation and I don’t agree with his point.

I believe the real problem isn’t that there are too many people involved in the creative process that don’t love creativity—instead, it’s often the process itself.

The process is broken, for example, if someone without the authority to say “yes” is allowed to say “no.” I believe no junior client who sees the creative concept first should be able to reject it before a senior, experienced executive—one empowered to take calculated risks—can see it and assess its potential.

Similarly, the process is broken if senior executives have forgotten how listening to their gut helped put them in the role they’re in. They may have once loved creativity, but the circumstances are different now. They are more concerned with optics, and how non-marketing stakeholders, including board members who have a say in their ability to deliver results, will react to something “creative” requiring a leap of faith.

Here are a few examples of this from my own experience:

Evian Natural Spring Water comes from the French Alps. In France, parents commonly give it to their babies. It’s a powerful image of purity. We presented a concept featuring smiling “water babies” swimming underwater. The senior client based in Paris and responsible for Canada rejected it in the blink of an eye. “Are you crazy, don’t you know babies will pee in the water?” Several years later, Evian made a splash with a campaign created by Euro RSCG in which babies were shown synchronized swimming in a fountain. Wrong decision-maker—a salesperson who knew much about exporting to foreign markets, but little about brand-building. Wrong time. Wrong process.

When Ernest & Julio Gallo went looking for an agency in Canada, they invited us to California to visit their vineyards in Santa Rosa, as well as their impressive manufacturing facility in Modesto. We were excited to return three weeks later with creative we thought was on brief and exactly what Ernest Gallo would approve. After all, this was a man who hired two ad legends: Hal Riney and Joe Pytka. He must love creativity.

Our idea brought to life a simple theme—“Great wine. Great find.”—as a way to elevate Gallo’s jug wine image to the kind of value even wine connoisseurs seek. By the time we presented it, Ernest was still reading the index card prepared for him trying to figure out who we were. It died on the spot. New business is rarely the place to present the right creative for the business. How could he buy our idea before knowing who we were? Wrong process.

When I led the Rogers business for MacLaren McCann, we had to achieve the near impossible: create a unifying campaign for all its divisions. I soon learned why they were called divisions. Cable, wireless, video stores, radio stations and magazines like Flare, Chatelaine and Macleans, as well as the Blue Jays, were run as completely separate businesses. With the help of research and a few creative leaps, we figured that a brand promise about what people are passionate about could be the common thread. Whether you’re passionate about sports, fashion, gardening, or news, Rogers connected you to those passions.

The tagline we recommended for all Rogers’ advertising was “What’s your passion?”

It got an enthusiastic nod from those in charge of what was then called “convergence.” But it died a sudden death when the head of marketing for the division with the largest budget killed it, believing it possessed sexual connotations. He had shown in the past that he loved creativity, but either his larger agenda or his private passions got in the way. Again, wrong, divided process.

I agree in principle with Pedersen that “we have the power to create the creative industry we want to work in,” but it won’t be by getting rid of those who don’t love creativity. Or working around them. Instead, we should celebrate those that aren’t “creative” (in their job description) but most definitely are in their actions and the ways they enable creativity.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.