You know that moment when something you’re working on comes together and you get it and in that instant it alters your DNA and leaves you in a place you’ve never been?
When I was a student at the Art Center College of Design studying advertising there was a critical part of the curriculum that required one of those DNA alterations. It centered on creating concepts. In advertising, a concept is an idea that delivers a message about a product or a service in a unique and memorable way. If you’re a fan of the Super Bowl you know that during the game big-time advertisers spend millions of dollars to showcase their creative and concept-driven TV commercials. For advertising art directors and copywriters having a commercial on the Super Bowl is like winning the lottery.
While all of my classmates understood what a concept was and knew one when they saw one, none of us had any idea of how to actually create one. And unlike certain things, you can’t fake a concept.
Every Wednesday my concept-advertising instructor would have the class pin our ideas up on the wall. We would be surrounded by the work of 20 students, each with an ad for the same product. The work represented hours and hours of each student’s time grinding out headlines and visuals and then editing them down to the one idea they thought was brilliant and that they could defend.
Walking into that room every Wednesday, I knew that by the end of class, if we were lucky, there would be one ad that would be a winner. Not only that, I knew the winning ad would come from the same one or two students—students who had somehow broken the code to this mysterious, magical process. Women and men I knew would be going to the Super Bowl.
Our instructors were mostly art directors and copywriters who had been trained by the legendary Bill Bernbach, father of concept advertising and founder of the award-winning Advertising Agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach. To give you a time frame, Bill Bernbach was one of the original Mad Men. He started DDB in 1949 and is credited with shuttling in a new era of advertising. Art Center picked up on this early and snapped up as many DDB creative people as possible to train students in their ad department.
So it’s late at night and this guy is standing in the street next to a car frantically looking for something on the ground. A woman walks up and asks, “What are you looking for?” He says, “I’m looking for my car keys.” The woman says, “Are you sure you lost them here?” The guy says, “No, I lost them over by the alley.” So the woman says, “Then why on Earth are you looking for them here?” And the man replys, “Because this is where the street light is.”
The fact is none of the students lacked what was required to create great concepts. What we were all looking for was there for the taking—only not where we were looking. What the students who had the winning ads understood that the rest didn’t was that creating strong concepts required a change in perspective and the willingness to look for answers in unexplored places. Eventually everyone got it—you can see their results every Super Bowl Sunday.