The Little Assignment That Could
Dave Kuhl / WNW Member
While in conversation with an art director, I listened to her detail the incessant drudgery of a recent workday. In the morning, she had to attack two 90-second TV commercial briefs. After that, she kicked off a global branding campaign for the agency’s most prized account. She also had to start designing new logos for one of the biggest companies in the world. On top of all this, there’s an upcoming film shoot in Fiji that she hasn’t even packed for yet.
This is a made-up scenario, of course. No one in the business is that lucky. You’re extremely fortunate if you have even one of those projects in an entire year. The reality is that most of us spend the majority of our days working on far more menial tasks.
There are hundreds of little assignments in your agency right now. They take a variety of forms, but they’re not huge-budget TV spots or extensive brand campaigns. The briefs for these projects will contain no mention of flying to New Zealand for production. Nor will they cause calamitous fights within the agency over who gets to work on them.
Chris Staples, creative director at Rethink, directs his teams to make the most of every assignment, no matter the size. “At Rethink, we’ve always believed that you don’t need a big budget to come up with a big idea. In fact, the bigger the project, the bigger the hassle you often face. More layers of approval. More research. More meddling. I’d much rather have ten awesome-but-small things in my book than one giant TV spot.”
To Staples’s point, you need to deftly consider every little assignment that comes your way. Many of the outstanding ads that appear in award annuals began as something small—a little brief that was ignored until some creative sleuths realized its hidden potential. They circled it like a hungry shark, conjured up a unique idea, willed it into existence and reaped the rewards.
Once you start consistently directing yourself to make the most of every assignment, you’ll develop a Swiss Army knife of tactics. “Some of our best TV spots were produced for budgets of $25K or less,” says Staples. “The trick is to keep the concepts simple and rely on first-time directors trying to build their reels.” These are the moments when you’ll want to call in those precious favors you’ve been building up amongst production vendors.
You should view every little assignment like a late-round draft pick—a scrappy underdog with the potential to bloom into an unexpected superstar. OK, I know what you’re thinking after reading that. “Hey, Dave, I just got out of a briefing to redesign a financial client’s annual report. How do I make something remarkable out of that one?” Well, maybe you won’t. Don’t expect every brief to be the equivalent of a ten-carat diamond ring discovered inside an inherited armoire. You’ll need to heighten the radar that tingles your creative Spidey senses only when there’s opportunity lurking within a brief. “Not every small job is a potential home run,” Staples says. “You have to know if the conditions are right.”
A few years ago, German agency Serviceplan received a panoply of press after designing an Austrian solar company’s annual report. The agency created a booklet of pages that only became readable in direct sunlight, an ingeniously appropriate solution for a solar company. It swept many award shows that year—all from a brief that probably didn’t appear to be full of much promise in its fledgling stages.
Social posts, typically seen as a daily chore for most creatives, can sometimes develop into unexpected treasures. On several occasions, Staples and other members of the team at Rethink have taken advantage of the medium’s looseness. He comments, “Since senior clients often leave it to juniors to approve [social posts], you can even slide in cheap videos if you can shoot them yourself and use no talent.” Rethink used this strategy to create a great series for Rickard’s Beer called “Rules of the Round.” Each short video hilariously documents the edicts of pub culture, all created within a minimal production budget.
There are even more perks that come with consistently over-delivering on the little assignments. A big one is that you and your agency will be viewed as the gives-it-all-they’ve-got creative team. It shows your bosses and clients how much you care.
Pat Feehery, creative director of Amélie Company, takes this enthusiast approach and views every seemingly pint-sized project as bursting with potential. “When you have passion for the thing you are selling, anything is possible,” he says. “You can tell a story in a way that’s clever, that doesn’t need special effects or celebrities. Once you are free from the shackles of a big budget, it’s only then that you create something truly unique and creative.”
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Make the most of little assignments. Learn to sniff out the right ones like foxhounds on the hunt. The next time you encounter a brief that you scoff at, give it a second thought and look at it a different way. Love the little assignments, and you’ll love your job even more. Always remember, just because they’re little doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat them like they’re big.
Dave's post originally appeared in Communication Arts.