5 ways for advertising creatives to keep their sanity

"Finding a few extra minutes every day has gotten much tougher since becoming a dad..."

As an advertising creative, I’d go crazy if all I made were ads.

I got into this business because I love to make stuff. And as much I love making commercials, digital experiences, and anything else that solves a marketing problem, I need something that’s mine. No brief, no KPIs, no legal. It’s why I always have a side project in the works.

When I first started as a copywriter, I also published a zine. It went from local pound-the-pavement distribution to international sales through Tower Records (remember them?) and other companies.

Eventually, I decided to put my side hustle energies into something that might be more profitable and reach more people. That’s when I sold my first book, which featured weird things I found on eBay. My sixth, about Earth’s obsession with Mars, is due out next July.

To this day, seeing one of my ads run is rewarding—from TV spots to online banners. But seeing something I made on a bookshelf is an entirely different thrill. Years from now when I look back on my career, I want to know I’ve left something behind that people can continue to learn from and enjoy.

When co-workers find out I do this, they often ask the same question: "How do you find the time?"

I also hear its extended version: "Don’t you have kids? How do you find the time?"

And the equally curious: "How do you write at work all day and then go home and write?"

It’s not easy. Finding a few extra minutes every day has gotten much tougher since becoming a dad, not to mention being inundated with Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime binges (no time for you, Hulu). But regardless of how busy work and life has been, I’ve always found a way to keep writing something besides ads. Like this article, for example.

Whether you want to write a book, a screenplay, a blog or anything else outside of work, here are five ways to do it:

  1. Pick an idea – Keep a list of them. Your phone is a good place for it, so it’s always on hand Sometimes ideas pop into my head as amorphous thoughts. If they’re intriguing, I write them down and come back to them later. Just like an ad, a book idea might need to incubate for a bit. On the other hand, sometimes I’m immediately excited and motivated and have to start digging into it. When that happens, the next step isn’t so hard to do.
  2. Carve out pockets of time – When an idea grabs you, you’ll find time for it—and you’ll be glad to spend the next few months (maybe even years) with it. Sure, advertising hours can be bonkers. But when you’ve got a few free minutes, use them. If you commute by train, like me, you’ve got two chunks of time every day. With no wifi tempting you to check email or the Internet, you can write without distractions. (Note: This requires headphones to block out obnoxious commuters who think it’s okay for the whole train to overhear their loud phone conversations—but I’ll leave that for another article.) Between too many meetings and doing the work for those meetings, time at the office can be nonexistent. Look for those moments when you’re waiting for a brief, feedback, or even just taking a break from brainstorming. Researching and writing beat scrolling through social media and reading the latest bad news in the world. Be a night owl or an early bird. I prefer staying up late to write after my wife and kids have gone to bed. I catch my second wind and continue developing ideas that have been swirling in my head since the evening ride home. 
  3. Chip away at it – Side projects are long-term endeavors. If you’re writing a book, stringing together 60,000-80,000 words might sound daunting. So daunting, you might just assume you can’t do it, and so you won’t. Break it down. My goal is to write a thousand words a week. Some weeks I’ll write more, some less. But that means writing just a few hundred words a day. When you’ve got an hour on the train and a couple of hours late at night, that’s not too hard to achieve. Break the 10,000-word barrier, and then you know you’ve got something.
  4. Have a plan – It helps knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. An agent who can shop your work helps, of course. If you don’t have someone in your corner, start looking for somebody. Or find publishers that take unsolicited manuscripts. Send your work out there. Treat it like finding a job. It does no good sitting on your hard drive. Worst case scenario, there are many self-publishing options that are easy, cost-efficient, and professional. 
  5. Have fun – When you’re writing for yourself, you should enjoy it. If it’s fiction, you’re creating a world and only you get to decide what happens next. If it’s non-fiction, you’re sharing an amazing story with the world. You don’t need approvals from multiple layers at work, and you’re not addressing client feedback. This is all you. So write about what you’re interested in and enjoy it. For my new book, it’s meant learning more than I ever expected to know about planetary science and meeting some brilliant, fascinating people. Like people who make Mars rovers. That’s fun—not work.

Once your project is out in the world, you’ve opened yourself up to opportunities. Maybe it’ll lead to a follow-up project, an award, an option for TV or film, or interesting new contacts. Or maybe not. But one thing I can guarantee is that being creative on the side will energize you.

When ideas come together, when you learn something new, when you solve a problem, or when you achieve something you didn’t think you were capable of, you feel the rush. That momentum feeds right back into your day job. That’s good for your partners, your bosses, your clients, and most importantly, your sanity.

Marc Hartzman is group creative director at Ogilvy. 

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