Respect the Control

“It is the mark of the mind untrained to take its own processes as valid for all men, and its own judgments for absolute truth.”
Aleister Crowley

I’ve been fortunate to guide and mentor some truly productive professionals in my years as a creative director.

By “productive,” I’m talking about what results from that specific amalgam of talent, drive and work ethic. Creative work is only good if it’s useful, and great creative people produce useful work at a good clip. But the very best creatives become even more productive when they add a critical fourth element to that amalgam: respect.

Great creative people tend to be highly competitive. They want to be the best at what they do. Hemingway famously hoped that his novel, Across the River and into the Trees, would “put Shakespeare on his butt.” That drive fuels great work … but it also breeds arrogance. And arrogance, by its very nature, kills respect.

And respect, alas, is the mindframe from which you should start almost any piece of creative work.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to chat with Kevin Purcell, a thoughtful, lauded, veteran direct-response creative director who claims that he consistently “generates higher response rates than clients’ previously best performing advertising.”

That’s quite a claim. So I asked him: “What’s your secret?”

His answer? “You have to respect the control.”

Kevin wisely acknowledged that the “control” — a brand’s all-time best-performing piece of creative — earned that title for a reason. Kevin’s process is to start by analyzing the control and looking for weak spots, elements that could potentially be improved. Is there a key image that might better stop the eye? A stronger headline? A more intriguing call to action? An offer that would be perceived as more valuable/relevant to the target audience?

One tried-and-true way to start the creative process is to ask the question: How can I beat the best? But most of the creative professionals I’ve known start with a different question: How can I create something awesome?

While that sounds like a sensible and direct way for a highly ambitious artist to begin, it’s actually a self-imposed trap. You’re forcing yourself to ignore all context and history, and instead stare into an unforgiving blank slate. You’re challenging yourself to create genius from nothing — as if looking at what other great artists have done is cheating, somehow.

All great art is born from context and history.

To wit:

Claude Monet was highly impressed and influenced by Manet. But he also felt there was potential to execute that kind of style in a less-linear way. So, he effectively started with Manet’s work as the “control,” but pushed his own work to look more dreamlike, more representative of how the mind remembers something visual — i.e., in a vague, non-specific way. An impression, if you will.

We see and hear this across all forms of art. Listen to Adele sing a rock/pop song and you’ll hear the bluesy influence of Etta James. Watch a Quentin Tarantino film and, beneath his unique neo-noir style, you’ll see Scorsese’s brand of camera movement and montage.

Does this mean that Monet, Adele, Tarantino, et al., are derivative? Not at all. Because they started with elements of someone else’s phenomenal style and approach and made it their own. They respected what came before and took original creative risks to see if they could make something new and meaningful.

Circling back to Mr. Crowley:

Watching a copywriter, designer, animator, etc., stare at a blank screen and wait for genius to come is the mark of an untrained mind. Great creatives learn to tap the richness of context and history. Great creatives learn to respect the control. Great creatives know that the only way to be the best is to beat the best, rather than go off and play in isolation.

Because rising to that challenge, and succeeding, is what makes one great.

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