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How Much Time Does Creativity Really Take?

What if Usain Bolt charged per hour to watch him race? It’s a ridiculous thought, of course. Yet we all know that the only reason he is able to run 100 meters in less than ten seconds is because of years of preparation. He has spent a lifetime training to be able to do what he is best at faster than anyone else. How many of us are the same way? I spend hours every week just reading about new marketing ideas and campaigns. I study new reports and studies of human behaviour. Why do I do all this? Because I believe (and have seen over and over) that my ability to think on my feet and deliver good strategy and creativity for clients depends on all the work I do before I ever walk into that meeting room.

The irony is, I have spent most of my working career in roles where I have billed clients per hour. It is the most commonplace method of estimating and billing for work in most forms of professional service. I set my hourly rate, multiply that by how long I think I will spend on your project, and I have my budget. But what if I come up with the perfect idea in a moment? Legendary Ad man Phil Dusenberry from BBDO tells the story of bouncing through the streets of New York in a cab the night before a big pitch to GE – and finally landing on the perfect theme line for their advertising: “GE … we bring good things to life.”

This happens a lot. Creative people have a million ideas, and often they share them quickly. Having insights as opposed to ideas is more challenging, and often takes more time … but time isn’t a necessity, it is a side effect. And sometimes the most brilliant ideas come without side effects. In other words, they happen in an instant. Which leads to one of the oldest questions in the advertising business and perhaps many other service based businesses as well: should we charge less if we take less time to come up with the perfect solution?

The notorious law firm solution to this problem is to hire many junior lawyers and clerks to do busy work that burns hours (and is billed back to a client). Some marketing agencies have their own way of doing the same thing. If we want to move any of our industries forward, this model needs to crack. It is one of the things I am most excited about now that I am on my own. Hours matter less than results and creativity doesn’t always happen on the clock.

So the next time you think about being creative, or inspiring someone else to be creative on your behalf, think about what you’re really giving them an incentive to do. Hopefully it is delivering you the best insights, ideas and executions … no matter how long they take to develop.

5 thoughts on “How Much Time Does Creativity Really Take?”

  1. Great post as always Rohit. You mentioned, “I spend hours every week just reading about new marketing ideas and campaigns.” I do the same however I would like some insight from you on the sources you value the most. Any info will be appreciated!

  2. Absolutely wonderful thoughts Rohit…. I too spend many hours reading, researching and generally getting better at strategy – which to a lot of people looks like random internet browsing with questionable motives.

    Determining “value” for a client is one of the toughest things when you’re a creative consultant, because “creativity” can mean so many different things. A contractor, doctor, police officer or ad executive can be equally as creative in solving a problem and bringing value, but value is compensated very differently in those different arenas. I can’t tell you how many times the insight that got me the job came to me at 3 o’clock in the morning or while out for a jog. Both times, of course, when the “clock” wasn’t running. How do you charge for that?

    I’ve gone back and forth from fixed project fees to straight hourly and I’m rarely convinced that either choice was the right one for a given project. I think it’s easier if you’re going down a similar creative path and you can point to value that you’ve provided to a previous client in actual dollars. When you’re truly blazing new trails, value is almost possible to price.

    Being creative is fun and rewarding and finding others and/or clients who appropriately value your contribution is an amazing feeling. I wish you luck on your new solo-endeavors and hope the intersection of creativity, happiness and compensation is a great one!

  3. Great article. Yes, sometimes it takes only an instant to find the idea – but how long has it been prepared in my head – how many years of gathering (what then seemed) irrelevant data, pictures, pre-ideas. Then I watch my painting friend, standing in front of her recent work. “4000” she says without counting hours or the amount of paint or canvas. Just by intuition.

  4. You have made good points. Usain does do so well because he has been training for longer than many people who watch him run have been alive. The only secret to the success of Jamaican athletes is hard work. They sacrifice and work hard for many years so that when crunch time comes, they can put out their best. Kudos to them!

    Similarly, sites like Amazon, techdealsmag or Zappos did not just rise up in one night. They are fueled by the imagination, skill and hard work of people who have taken the time to prepare themselves in their area of specialization.

  5. It doesn’t matter how long it took to come up with ideas as long as they are good ones. Also, it’s not necessary to share the amount of time it took to come up with an idea with your client. Some ideas come gradually after days of brainstorming, and others spontaneously arise. Either way, if the client is satisfied, you’ve done your job.


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Rohit is the author of 8 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.

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