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Creativity Squared: Igniting the Flame with Ian Mirlin


Crowdiate’s creative director talks LBB through the joys of a creative life, and why he still hasn’t written “the ad I came here for”

Creativity Squared: Igniting the Flame with Ian Mirlin

There aren’t many creative directors working today who are able to draw upon half a century of creative experience. But that’s the benefit of working alongside Ian Mirlin, who today is lending his expertise and craft to Crowdiate’s uniquely democratic approach to creativity. 

Underpinning Ian’s success across five decades in the business has been an enduring passion for ideas. Notably their effectiveness and, perhaps most fascinatingly, how they grow.

Here, the creative director reflects on the beats and rhythm of the creativity which has defined his career, how best to move beyond routine, and why he fears that creativity itself may have become an endangered species… 

LBB> Ian, how would you describe your own attitude towards creativity?

Ian> I’m a good example of what Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, described as his ideal player: someone smart enough to know the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.

What keeps me motivated, I think, is the nagging sense that I haven’t yet written the ad I came here for. It’s probably the same strange adrenaline that drives athletes to run one more race or to play one more game. Maybe it’s just a case of not wanting to leave the party while the music is still playing.

I still care passionately about the business and its creative possibilities, especially now when there are so many new tools that could make us better - and so many others that could utterly undo us.

I’ve been fortunate to work with good people in some good agencies, for clients who, whether they knew it or not, brought out the best in me. I still live in much of the fertile ground they helped me dig.

Creatively, I’m very emotionally-centred. Perhaps to a fault. I am the same in the way I relate to the world on an everyday basis, so I guess I’m pretty much the kind who never leaves my work at the office. 

LBB> And what kind of creativity do you admire most in others?

Ian> The advertising I admire most is the rare kind that speaks with a naked honesty and the kind of unblinking human insight that makes a reader or viewer ask themselves: “how did you know that about me?!”

I’m not talking about advertising that feels voyeuristic or invasive in any way. What I mean,  is the kind of work that’s right-on-the-button in the way it bears witness to the way we are as humans, our strengths, our foibles and all. The work which provides a gentle observation, completely without judgement.

It’s not particular to any gender or ethnicity, demographic or psychographic. It’s not about how one might identify. It’s work that looks to go beyond what makes us all different, aiming instead to reaffirm what makes us all the same. 

If marketers and their agencies believe in advertising that has real social value, that is the kind of work they should aspire to create. 

LBB> Do you think that creativity is something that’s innate, or is it something that one can learn?

Ian> I think creativity is innate, and that living a creative life is a switch that, once flipped, can’t be turned off. But we shouldn’t think that creativity is the reserved domain of the writers, painters, and musicians among us.

Creativity is really just a way of seeing and interpreting the world in shapes or colours or words, no different to someone whose innate talent brings their consciousness to view engineering or quantum mechanics as their mode of expression.

Albert Einstein was massively creative, as was Muhammad Ali, and so was Steve Jobs. Some of us want to paint what we see, some choose to experiment with the way light behaves. Some might apply their creativity in the sports arena. It’s all creativity. 

We can’t understate, either, how life and life’s experiences help orient one’s innate talent and potentially elevate it to its most evolved and natural place.

Scott Fitzgerald was writing advertising copy five years before he wrote The Great Gatsby. Kurt Vonnegut was a copywriter at General Electric, before he won acclaim as a novelist. Ridley Scott, as we know, shot some of our most beloved commercials before he carved out an illustrious career in feature films. So did Spike Jonze, Michael Bay, and others. Who would have guessed that Helen Gurley Brown would emerge from the media department at FCB to become the editor of Cosmopolitan?

And then there’s Albert Einstein whose life led him from being a humble patent clerk to becoming a titan of modern physics.

There’s no friction better than the rigours of day-to-day living that’s more capable of generating untapped creative growth.

LBB> In your own experience, what’s the best way to start work on a creative project?

Ian> The path to great work in any kind of creative endeavour is hard. It’s no different in advertising, and creating consistently smart work is a challenge. Leonard Cohen expressed the nature of creative frustration best when, with his usual wry eloquence he remarked: “If I knew where all the good songs are, I’d go there more often”. I’m a long way from being Leonard Cohen, but ideas are as elusive to me as they likely are to anyone in the creative business.

What we do with this conundrum comes down to individual choice.

In my case, I figured my best chance of locating that enchanted land would be simply to leap, freefalling with an open mind and the brief tucked in my pocket, hoping to land in a friendly field where good ideas come running to meet me. I don’t think I’m especially unique in that respect.

LBB> Over the course of your career, what have been your key influences?

Ian> Some writers will say they tend to approach a brief from a visual point of view, hunting down the images that bring their idea to life. I find I’m mostly copy-led.

Often I’ll do weird things like changing the font I’m working with to see if Gill Sans manifests a different feeling to the words than Avenir Condensed.

Once I have a basic idea of the words that capture the idea, I’ll run them against a visual narrative in my mind, shuffling words and images again and again until they feel in happy accord.

Then I tackle what I always consider to be the most monumental task: Getting it simple. Or “playing only the notes that need to be played”, as the saying goes. In earlier years, Brian Harrod - my art director partner - and I would test an idea we were working on by translating it into a billboard. If it worked as a poster, we figured we’d gotten it down to its most simple form.

For me, the biggest influences in my creative toolbox are shaped by music and film.

Good writing in any form has music in it. The cadence of words whether syllabic or contained in the length of a sentence, create a tone to copy that I find magical, alchemy quite capable of making one feel the brand. The English writers like David Abbot and American counterparts like Hal Riney were masters of this.

I try to write VO or body copy imbued with a kind of music that suggests itself easily, I don’t want to make a reader or listener work hard to hear it. 

Film is also part of my daily diet. I’m the nerd who stores away the moment in a film in which the waiter’s line of dialogue is lost when the barman drops a glass. I’d want to use something like that in a commercial someday, just to add a touch of realism.

LBB> How do you feel about routine?

Ian> That’s a question best answered by a line Arthur Koestler wrote when he defined creativity as “the defeat of habit by originality”. I find his quote particularly apt in our business, where so much of the creative process is stuck in a continual wash-rinse-repeat cycle.

Routine is likely necessary for someone undertaking a book or a screenplay, but in advertising, routine is just another word for prolonging a habit and I try to avoid it as much as I can.

LBB> Finally, what are your thoughts about the future of creativity in advertising?

Ian> That is a very big question, and one that deserves wider attention than I think it’s getting.

Mostly I’m worried that creativity the way we know it, love it, and believe in it is an endangered species. John Hegarty in an interview with LBB described it perfectly when alluding to the unrelenting pervasiveness of social media, made the comment that we are no longer persuaders, but stalkers of the consumer. 

Based on our industry’s current trajectory, Sir John’s observation is astute and it’s not just a creative conversation that will save us.

For me, the need for long-term thinking to be valued as a core principle for brands and their custodians, supplies a critical cornerstone for the survival of the creative product.

The work I see coming out of Crowdiate really excites me about our industry’s creative future, and I want to preserve it. Like when one sees something fresh and brilliant from a young writer in Peru that draws from her culture which, in our more homogenised cultural factory, would likely never have emerged. Or a seasoned veteran art director in Auckland delivering a design that takes your breath away.

These encounters provide evidence of the power of creativity, and I treasure them. It’s a new spark emerging on one side of the world, and a flame that still burns brightly on the other.

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Crowdiate, Fri, 11 Feb 2022 08:12:00 GMT