Why creatives are turning to personal projects to fulfil their artistic cravings

From reverse taxidermy to harp playing, creatives are picking up new tools out of work to express their individuality. By former Dare creative Andrew Edelston.

Nearly every creative I know has a side project: the thing they work on when they’re not trying to come up with something ground breaking for Whiskas, etc. From spoon whittling, to cushion stitching to music video directing – I even know of someone that’s into "reverse taxidermy".

No one is just an advertising creative these days. But are outside interests defining or distracting? Do they make you better at your actual job?

There came a time in our industry when it seemed fashionable to hire people precisely because they had experience in anything but advertising. Harp playing architects were hot. Whether or not they could come up with good ideas was irrelevant – they were architects, who could play the harp.

Unsullied, untapped, virgin creative minds ready to revolutionise the industry. This perpetuated a trend towards the rest of us broadening our horizons in order to stay relevant. Suddenly everyone had a "project" on the go. Yes, we worked in advertising, but we were also directors, artists, DJ’s and part time tea bloggers. Advertising was suddenly just a means to end.

Are outside interests defining or distracting? Do they make you better at your actual job?

It’s easy to see why this happened. People yearn for an outside influence in our industry. It’s a claustrophobic place to work, where ideas are easily regurgitated. So when a member of the non-ad public strolls into the job not knowing if JWT is an agency or a high strength bleach, it’s refreshing. And equally for those of us at the coal face, we too crave outside refreshment. Because if we’re honest, sometimes you can only get so excited about working on a tampon advert.

Working on projects that have nothing to do with a brand, a "customer journey", a planner, a shareholder or this magazine are a breath of fresh air. No one denies cracking the window a little feels good, but does it produce better work?

Arguably any creative pursuit is useful advertising practice. After all, you never know what it is you are going to be working on next and in what medium. It’s a nice theory. But the reality is the conditions you work under on your own project are entirely different to those found in an agency.

With your own project you don’t have to answer to clients, planners, account men, creative directors or shareholders.

You don’t have to find a way to communicate six different benefits while sticking to strict brand guide lines, all the while bearing in the mind the client’s idea – just as a "thought starter" of course.

Cracking an advertising brief is a unique skill and although fantastically unblemished, unfiltered ideas are possible, it relies heavily on so many people allowing it happen. The same barriers do not exist in personal projects and so as an exercise, it’s hard to view them as useful practice.

My hunch is that the real value in personal projects lies in creative venting. We’re vain creatures and much of what we work on ends up in the bin. We’re lucky if we make two or three campaigns a year so it’s no wonder so many people turn their abundant energies elsewhere.

My hunch is that the real value in personal projects lies in creative venting.

Even when we do come up with something truly brilliant, provocative, funny or moving, the accolades and cheers are always louder inside adland than out. We want validation and to feel like we’re making things. We may be in an incredibly fortunate position where we get to come up with "stuff" for a living, but occasionally we crave for that stuff to mean more than it often does.

As an advertising creative myself I’m no stranger to self loathing. There’s a healthy, inherent cynicism and awareness that what we do is often hated by the outside world and we look for ways to distance ourselves from bad advertising. It has become in itself a watch word and litmus test for quality.

"Looks like an ad" is perhaps the most damning of words uttered in a creative review. That’s why we create pornographic music videos and stuff meat back into hollowed out soft toys (see reverse taxidermy), because Barclays would never sanction it.

And this is where I feel the real benefit for the industry can be found. It keeps people happy and motivated to produce work that reaches beyond the genre. Incredible campaigns like Gatorade "Replay". An idea that could have only come about through a deep knowledge and passion for something outside of advertising.

At the end of the day we all just want to make the best work possible and if the best way to do that is to stick raw meat inside a seal carcass, I’m all for it.

Andrew Edelston is a freelance creative.

Picture credit: Artotem

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