Creativity is bound by rules, like it or not.

Two ideas from David Ogilvy, which seem to contradict one another.


“Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters, and rebels.”


“Creativity needs discipline and freedom.”

Are they conflicting thoughts? Has the advertising legend contradicted himself?

No, I don’t think so.

Creativity is a double-edged sword. Creativity in any endeavor requires a mind open to thinking differently. Creativity also requires restriction to thrive. One without the other will cause creativity to wither.

T.S. Eliot understood this.

“When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.”

Ogilvy understood this, too. Artists of every stripe live by this “rule” even if they never articulate it.

Michelangelo, to cite only one example, never looked at a block of marble and asked, “I wonder what I’ll sculpt today?” He saw his result before he began. Restriction presented itself at that point where he realized that he must stop, that his work was finished.

How did he know? I have no clue, but I’m pretty sure he stopped at the right moment, and we have his work as evidence.

When I teach creative brief writing, too few people see the brief as a restricting tool. Instead, they see it as a kitchen sink, into which they pour everything. Their inclination is to leave nothing out, for fear of, well, leaving something out. Thus defeating the brief’s purpose.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four clearly defined rules or constraints or guidelines that have lit the path for thinkers, writers, film makers and other artists that serve the same purpose as a creative brief does for the advertising and marketing industries. You may know others (please share!).

In fact, these four “maps” are already used by resourceful and intrepid creative brief writers to help them write better briefs.

First, the best explainer of how you come up with an idea, and therefore the Enforcer-in-Chief of idea generation: James Webb Young.

His book, A Technique For Producing Ideas, published in 1940 and never out of print, outlines the five steps every mind follows to come up with that “Ah-ha!” moment.

So Young fits Eliot’s “strict framework” criteria. If you try to skip one of the steps, you will almost certainly short-circuit your idea.

Follow the rules and you succeed.

Second, Glenn Gers posted a short video on Youtube in which he posits that you don’t have a story if you cannot answer six questions.

Follow the rules and you succeed.

Third, Joseph Campbell’s research into mythologies of the world revealed that the origin stories of all the cultures he studied shared essential elements.

Campbell called these elements the Hero’s Journey, between 12 and 20 steps.

Stories written today, from movies to novels to television dramas to plays, that fail to catch on with audiences lack one or more of the Hero’s Journey touch points.

Follow the rules and you succeed.

And fourth, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation until his retirement in 2019, pointed to the Braintrust, established by Pixar in its early days.

The Braintrust was a group of senior folks at Pixar—directors, producers, writers, and others—who served as an in-house sounding board.

Their job, according to Catmull, was to give ideas the space to live, but also to offer candor, sometimes harsh candor, required of all creative endeavors to re-route or re-energize an idea when it was off kilter.

In other settings, the Braintrust might be called a workshop or a writers’ group.

The point is, when a project is as resource intense as a motion picture, or an advertising campaign, feedback is mandatory.

Not to criticize, but to critique constructively.

Catmull described the painstaking process of taking an idea from pitch to premiere, which often required years.

Each of these examples outline an Eliotesque “strict framework” within which creativity emerges, grows and either succeeds or dies.

You may follow any or all of these journeys or paths to the letter, and it will not guarantee the idea will be a hit, but failure to follow or utilize one or more of them will almost certainly guarantee a dud.

This is the world in which a creative brief lives. It is one of many other forms of rules, restrictions, constraints that, once imposed on an artist, accelerates thinking and, with practice, produces an idea.

Creatives say they hate rules, but in fact what they hate even more is no guideposts.

The creative brief is one in a long line of such guideposts.

Failure to use it, and use it wisely, is an avoidable mistake.

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