Creative lessons (from the most creative people in business)
In our little bubble we call advertising, we tend to regard ‘Creatives’ as the most creative people in business. After all, the word is literally on our business cards. After a couple of years of Wordsearch interviewing people as part of our 3D Brand Strategy process, I’m fairly confident I know who the real creatives are. And I’m also confident it won’t be a popular opinion. Brace yourself:
The most creative people in business are property developers.
I’m deadly serious. We ‘Creatives’ can get terribly self-congratulatory when we make a short video (that we hire a film company to make) or produce a brochure (that we get a photographer to shoot) or, when we’re being really ‘maker faire’, release an app (that we commission a developer to code). Some of these videos and brochures and apps are very nice. Some are even useful.
When considering the base-level definition of creativity means “having an ability to make new things”, developers put us all in the shade. I’m not talking about real estate agents, or property speculators or even construction companies. I’m talking about people who look at a piece of the city, imagine what could be there and then go and make it happen.
These people turn derelict wharves into fine dining precincts, wrestle contaminated industrial wasteland into residential communities, build the offices we ‘create’ in and the apartments we go home to.
Granted, developers have also built some odious crap of dubious quality and garnered a reputation as rule-bending, money-loving, concrete-pouring, misanthropes — but are you willing to defend the entirety of adland’s output, down to the very last late-night infomercial?
Whether by chance or by circumstance, I’ve had the pleasure of talking at length with some of the world’s most experienced and respected developers about how and why they create the things they create.
Here’s the best of what I’ve learned from those conversations on real creativity:
1. Be in it for the long term
Successful developers tend to be wealthy people, but I don’t begrudge them for it. To simplify the process dramatically: they have to find the sites, put together the capital, commission the designs, obtain approvals, manage construction, make the sales and rectify the problems, all while hoping the economic cycle doesn’t swing hopelessly against them in the meantime. (Spoiler alert: it usually does).
When you look at the risks involved and the time invested, it’s a wonder anything gets built at all. (Another spoiler alert: it often doesn’t). Every developer I interviewed talked of the ones that got away, the projects that stalled, the mistakes that almost sunk the company. Importantly, they talked about the lessons learned.
Pro tip: If you want to get really good at what you are doing, keep at it. Keep learning, keep improving. Pay for your mistakes and keep the receipts.
2. Details matter
Creatives have recently become fond of saying ‘execution is the new black’ like it’s a cool trend. This would make developers laugh.
For them, there is nothing but execution. From the accuracy of the engineering diagrams to the durability of the finish on the tapware, it all matters. Everything is important and every mistake is costly. Even architects will tell you that only their ‘built designs’ are worth talking about (and they are the closest I found to traditional ad creatives in this realm).
While I didn’t meet any developers who still had concrete under their fingernails, they all had origin stories from a practical part of the business: design, engineering, construction or project management. (Or finance, at a pinch).
What was uniform, however, was their appetite for information and their capacity to absorb detail. They outsource for speed and profitability, not because they aren’t capable of doing it themselves. And they kept a constant, microscopic lens on what is being created in their name.
Pro tip: Get obsessive about the things you create. Read everything, including the fine print. If you don’t understand, ask. Don’t assume someone else will figure it out. Be on set until wrap.
3. Problems are good (sort of)
In developer land, problems are generally bad. Small ones are costly to fix but, left unchecked, they escalate into big ones, quickly. We heard the tale of a last-minute change in excavation plans disturbing a previously-undetected water table. The resulting remediation works cost almost exactly the same amount as the development’s projected profits. For the duration of construction, the developer referred to themselves, unwillingly, as a not-for-profit company.
You might think that developers hate problems (and they, do in a way), but the funny thing is, the art of development is fundamentally the art of solving problems. Which is why developers are so good at predicting, planning for, spotting, reacting to and taking responsibility for problems – in that order.
To the outsider, it appears an incredibly pessimistic way to operate, but I find it a much more useful approach than the relentlessly sunny (some would say naive) countenance of the typical adland creative: “we’ll use social to make it go viral!”.
By contrast, my favourite creative partners are film producers and event planners — they spend the entire job assuming things are going to go wrong and working out how to make it not just right, but brilliant. Sound familiar?
Pro tip: Imagining how great your idea is going to be is an important first creative step. Thinking about all the things that threaten your idea and working out how to defeat them is equally important.
4. Know why you do it (apart from the money)
When you work with seriously wealthy people you soon learn the real problem with money: it’s never enough. During a recent workshop (we were helping a successful developer define their ‘brand story’), the leadership team were taking themselves to task because they had not completed any projects recently. They’d been busy, buying development sites and lodging DAs, but they didn’t build anything – a crazy market meant they were being offered crazy cash to on-sell the sites at significant profits.
While the balance sheet had never looked better, it wasn’t making them happy. Tensions were high. They were in a rut, describing themselves dismissively as ‘land brokers’ or, even worse, as being ‘in real estate’.
They realised they loved making new places, enjoyed the process of building new buildings. To them, being a developer was ‘fun’, that was who they were. If they didn’t get back to doing it, sharpish, then what was the point? There are, after all, far easier ways of making money.
Pro tip: Assume your career will pay you adequately. Now, work out why else you are doing what you do. If you can’t find a reason, you have a problem.
Expanding the notion of ‘creativity’ in your career or business is an incredibly useful and liberating technique. It’s how you help develop a good idea into a truly great one – by putting in the time, obsessing over production, anticipating problems and setbacks.
Crucially, it’s how you tackle the biggest handbrake on true creativity: motivation.
Take some time to think about what you really enjoy making. For me, it was stories, which is why I channelled some of my creativity into writing my debut novel.
For the developers I’m fortunate enough to work with, it’s better places, more interesting cities, the ‘almost impossible’ building.