Executive Creative Director
In praise of creative isolation.
In his infamous 1967 speech, “When to take my name off the door,” Leo Burnett warned the agency he would re-materialize after his death if they lost sight of some fundamental values. Like respecting the talented individual often toiling in isolation to achieve a creative breakthrough.
Here’s the quote in full. Please forgive the anachronous use of gender and the reference of a deity - however I did not want to alter the original speech.
“Finally, when you lose your respect for the lonely man – the man at his typewriter or his drawing board or behind his camera or just scribbling notes with one of our big black pencils – or working all night on a media plan. When you forget that the lonely man – and thank God for him – has made the agency we now have – possible. When you forget he’s the man who, because he is reaching harder, sometimes actually gets hold of – for a moment – one of those hot, unreachable stars.”
If you can overlook the outdated language and instead focus on the timeless idea of this quote, it’s timelier than ever. It recognizes that creative breakthroughs are often the fruit of a talented person toiling away, off the radar, often in isolation. There is much wisdom in this perspective. It comes from seeing firsthand how breakthrough ideas are actually born. And now, as there is much discussion about heading back into crowded offices, it’s even more critical to consider the benefits of healthy isolation.
Creativity thrives in healthy isolation
Over five years ago, pre-pandemic, when I was running the creative departments of a couple different big shops, “open office” fever took ahold of the industry. While it was always framed as a method to induce collaboration, most employees always saw it for what it really was – a way to get more people in less space. It was a boon for holding companies, commercial real estate and people who sell noise-cancelling headphones.
Early “open office” space circa 2014
Seeking a place to work undisturbed, many creatives would instead choose to work offsite, returning to the office for reviews and meetings, of course. I supported this practice knowing that to generate ideas, people need healthy isolation. Sitting in an open office environment trying to inconspicuously concentrate and riff ideas just doesn’t work.
Pre-pandemic, creatives would do whatever they had to do to get some privacy
And as we are emerging from a forced and necessary isolation - everyone is now fairly acclimated to working “offsite” (by everyone here I mean everyone in the marketing industry). Obviously, this was a once-in-a-generation event, a global crisis, with a contentious national election and significant social justice issues surfacing. So it would be foolish to look at the last 14 months as an experiment with “working from home.” But I have a feeling that – outside of the stress and strain of a global health crisis – a few people may have seen the creative benefit of not working in an open office environment.
As for me, I’ve been working from home since 2018. And my experience (pre-pandemic) certainly has aligned with Leo’s quote above. Freed from paradoxically claustrophobic open office spaces, unnecessary and infinite status meetings, time-suck commutes (even the back and forth of lunch), and spontaneous interruptions and distractions that unwittingly topple the house of cards that is the creative process – I know that I am, at least, 5x more prolific in isolation.
I also view it more as “working from where there’s decent Wi-Fi” versus “home,” including sitting anonymously in coffee shops when they’re open again. Yes, you can be alone in a crowd.
WFH or WFW (Working From Wi-Fi)?
Why is healthy isolation so important? Let me underscore that I value a diverse network of people. I understand the importance of interaction and debate and dialog and all those critical team dynamics of solving problems for clients. And for all outlined above, Zoom works good enough.
Additionally, let me point out that I can foresee a balance of in-person, Zoom and isolated concentration as the best mix. In-person for kick off briefings and creative reviews, Zoom for status and updates, isolation for the work. In my situation that is probably a 30/10/60% distribution, respectively.
Zoom - good for most meetings, but not every meeting.
But when it comes time to generating ideas, creative solutions, and fresh thinking, healthy isolation is imperative. It allows deeper, longer thinking and exploring. An extra 20 minutes of undisturbed concentration almost always yields a disproportionate quantity and quality of creative rewards. I have also realized that I tend to be introverted, so not having to spend my limited energy on extraversion and social interactions gives me more fuel in the tank to apply directly to the work I am doing.
So I am extremely grateful to be working for Metaforce in this new environment we are entering. I don’t have to grind my teeth over the “are we going back to the office” angst because the beauty of our business model eliminates geographic boundaries and unnecessary overhead. It’s the best way I’ve experienced to balance in-person collaboration and virtual, tech-driven collaboration. I can have the space and healthy isolation without any awkward issues and yet be directly connected with best-in-class talent regardless of physical location. It really lets us focus on the best creative work possible without neglecting relationship dynamics where it counts.
I understand many people crave the energy of the office environment. I know several friends who thrive off the warp and weft and the bump and grind of commuting and work culture. I also think it’s critical for young people starting out in the business to have the experience of an office space and in-person business culture. I can empathize.
But for me, and the benefit of our clients, I’ll stick with the healthy isolation. Because I know firsthand that’s how you actually get your hands on one of those stars.