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The immense reward of banishing ‘no’ from your creative dictionary

October 18, 2021, 10:56 AM UTC
“No” can’t be allowed to infect the creative process. It’s a word that creatives need to avoid, or sometimes even (politely) refuse to accept.
Courtesy of Ale Cruz

Working as a “creative” is definitely fun. You can go to work and finish the day having created something that simply didn’t exist that morning. How incredible is that? Not many can conjure up their products or services out of thin air, and it can sometimes feel like magic. Well, in fact, it is magic, and like any magic spell, there are magic words.

Like many things that appear to be “easy,” there is quite a bit of technique and hard work running underneath the surface. The “magic words” represent basic operating principles that drive great creative ideas. If you use them and truly understand them, you’ll be much better equipped to work with clients, agencies, or even teammates and managers in a way that makes you both happy and satisfied. For people who need to bring creativity to their role, or who work with creative people in order to do your job, beware, because you may be using the magic words wrong, destroying any chance of good creative work in the process. 

First, let’s name that dreaded word, the one with world-destroying properties; the word that derails the course of the entire creative process; the magic word that makes good ideas disappear; the word that will absolutely prevent better ideas from emerging as soon as you summon its noxious tone. The word? 

“No.” 

This word simply can’t be allowed to infect the creative process. It’s a word that creatives need to avoid, or sometimes even (politely) refuse to accept.

I’m not saying you have to accept whatever ideas come at you. But if you listen carefully, you may find that great ideas are coming at you all the time, and you’re not letting them appear. There are, however, two words that are imbued with magical, mystical, transformative properties. Those words? 

“Yes, and…” 

Invoking these magic words turns on a creative light in the universe, then emblazons a path to the center of great ideas. If you don’t believe me, you’ve thrown the wet blanket word, ”no,” over the fragile fire of creative discovery.

In the business world, this means that when you hear a “meh” idea from a coworker or client (and let me tell you, bad ideas do exist), instead of shutting it down, you need to listen carefully. Consider it and find something about it that is true or could be true. Momentarily assume, “yes.”

A finely tuned creative antenna helped Aflac Duck creator Eric David come up with the blockbuster campaign during a walk in the park.
John Lamparski—WireImage/Getty Images

Hiding inside every crazy note or notion, inside the note you think is going to “squash your idea,” is an insight into what will make your idea great. Can you hear it? Seriously analyze what the feedback means and let the idea grow bigger by addressing it. Bonus: Now you’re both invested.

Listening to the world around you helps you to tune that creative antenna and can help you pull in ideas from anywhere–a walk in the park, a weird-looking shape in your cereal, an offhand remark or sound. A friend of mine, Eric David, told me that he was walking in the park one day, thinking about a client brief very deeply, when he heard a duck quack. It echoed in his head. The client’s name was Aflac. Quack. Aflac. Suddenly, the Aflac Duck was born. Eric had his antenna tuned correctly. 

Being open to ideas can make all the difference, and using “yes, and” to consider how to appreciate and take in feedback is the key to creative nirvana that excites you and also works for your client.

I had the great fortune of working with a wonderful client for many years, General Mills. They are not paying me to say that. It’s true. They rarely said “no.” Well, at least not explicitly. They were artful about turning you down, and you had to listen hard to understand where the opportunities were. I was a General Mills kid growing up, and was particularly enthralled by three cereals: Count Chocula, Franken Berry, and Boo Berry. On my first day on the job as an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi, I found out that those brands were on my list, but was immediately told, “Forget it, there’s zero funding for them.” 

That didn’t stop me from thinking about it or pitching ideas. I was always met with a polite: “We love those characters, too, but there’s zero funding for new initiatives.” In my mind, they never explicitly said “no.” 

In my opinion, over the years, the characters had drifted away from the designs I loved as a child. So I started drawing them to find that old magic, a lot. I’d draw them on my commute, in meetings, I’d doodle them while watching TV. No one told me not to. We had very healthy amounts of billed work coming in, so as long as that work was succeeding, no one complained about my obsession. I kept hearing the client’s words echo in my head: zero funding. Technically, my sketching didn’t cost the company anything. I was just adding the “and” to our work. 

So then, what if my request wasn’t funding, then? Millions of dollars of advertising had been spent making these characters recognizable to generations of kids. What if we gave these drawings away to appear on other products? “Well, you should go talk to the licensing department, then.” Again, they didn’t say “no.” They wisely channeled my energies to the right constituent. 

The result was a style guide of drawings that modernized the characters while tapping into their original design aesthetic. That guide was used to bring on licensing partners in all kinds of categories; Hot Wheels cars, T-shirts, baseball caps, flavored lip balm, Halloween decorations, even an album of spooky sounds for Halloween sold exclusively at Target. The best part? The packaging agency (Baker & Associates) saw the character drawings and used them on the actual product. It was one of the greatest things to happen in my career. Millions of kids would now look at the cereal boxes and see my drawings. Nirvana.

The cynical among you will read this, and think, “Sucker, you did that work for free.” But I didn’t. We were already the agency of record on a dozen or more brands. The result, as far as I can tell, was that clients started asking to work with me and my team on all kinds of assignments. Big budget projects followed. The ROI on my gambit paid off handsomely. Over a decade later, the Monster Cereal brands now have a budget, General Mills is doing great work with the characters, and I’m totally jealous. Yet I’m proud that my designs still appear on all kinds of associated licensed products, and that I was able to become part of the brand’s storied history. The Hot Wheels are even collector’s items. But mostly, I was happy that I didn’t hear the word “no,” and I had found people who applied the magic words, “yes, and…”

My association with the Monster Cereals opened many doors in the universe. Every day, I see drawings, concepts, and ideas from people on my team and apply this approach at my current job. I work with 20 animators at Holler, making all kinds of crazy animated things you can use in messaging. Like any job, there are challenges. That’s why I try to percolate this philosophy throughout the team and across the departments that we interact with, and try to remember if we are not having fun, and we are not using the magic words correctly, we are doing it wrong.

Pat Giles is the head of studio at Holler.

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