I work with creative people every single day. And just so you know, I define creativity as problem solving with relevance and novelty. (I got that definition from a good friend a long time ago.) So that means that EVERY SINGLE PERSON I work with every day at DEG, a Merkle Company is a creative person. Everybody under this roof or looking at you through that computer screen is trying to solve business problems for their clients.

And that is hard business. There are so many limitations and complexities: Not enough time, no assets, low budget, persnickety or underpowered technology. The list of things getting in our way seems way, way longer than the list of things that are lining up to help us.

But what if I told you that embracing those limitations can actually lead to unlimited creativity? What if I told you that what you really are craving is a SMALLER box, a TIGHTER brief, a more WICKED problem?

It’s true. And I am going to prove it by showing you how to tighten the box to embiggen the idea.

We, as creatives, run up against the same three problems over and over again. They are:

  1. A super tight creative box.
  2. Zero creative box.
  3. No problem to solve.

Let’s attack these notions one at a time.


Let’s talk about the tightest creative box in the history of modern cinema: Bruce the Mechanical Shark from “Jaws.” (Yes, the robot shark was nicknamed Bruce.) When Bruce the shark simply would not work, Steven Spielberg and company didn’t pack it in. Even though at one point the shark—which was attached to a jib arm, rolling on a dolly track on the ocean floor—fell over and ramrodded itself into the sand and rocks head-first, denting its face, they didn’t throw up their hands. They got to work.

They rewrote the script, they added new subplots as to avoid using the shark, they worked on the shark, they developed new props. They concepted new ways of showing the shark, without, you know, showing the shark. That’s where we got the yellow barrels and the now iconic fin. (BTW, this amazing prop was nothing but a rubber fin nailed to a piece of wood that they dragged behind a boat.)

It was this lack of shark that turned Jaws from a schlocky b-movie horror film into the all-time suspense classic it became.

THE LESSON: Don’t despair. There’s always another idea. And often, it’s a better idea.


Now that we’ve talked about sharks, let’s move on to wizards and witches. Take the Harry Potter books. Over the course of the saga’s seven volumes, the length of each book increased and increased and increased again.

UX Editions
Philosopher’s Stone – 223 pages
Chamber of Secrets – 251 pages
Prisoner of Azkaban – 317 pages
Goblet of Fire – 636 pages
Order of the Phoenix – 766 pages
Half-Blood Prince – 607 pages
Deathly Hallows – 607 pages

The seventh book was about 3x longer than the first one. Want to venture a guess why? I’ve got one. It’s because after the global success of these novels, there was not a single person on the planet who could tell J.K. Rowling what to do. And the books got longer and more bloated and there was one whole book where Harry was yelling at everybody the whole time.

THE LESSON: Total creative freedom can be its own limitation.

Need another piece of evidence? The Star Wars Prequels. Like Rowling, George Lucas could do WHATEVER he wanted with the prequels. And when you can do whatever you want, you often end up doing things you shouldn’t. To wit, there is a 10 minute and 46 second version of the pod race in Episode 1. Ten minutes and 46 seconds! All to tell us that Anakin has Jedi reflexes. Which we already knew, all the way back in 1977, when we first met Darth Vader. (Sorry. Spoiler alert. Anakin is Darth Vader.)


Far too often, we are told to “Go do something creative.” Boy, what shit advice that is. Because we, like filmmakers and novelists, are not really in the “creativity” business. We are in the problem-solving business.

Now, marketing and advertising is our chosen vehicle to solve those problems. But we are not just making stuff to make stuff, we are designing solutions to problems. Remember when I said that creativity is problem solving with relevance and novelty? Well, to solve a problem you first need (wait for it) a problem.

To be creative you need a problem. That’s why we love working with strategists. The good ones often turn data into insights that produce problems for us to solve. Without a problem to solve, we just blow along with the breeze. And that doesn’t help us or anyone else.

THE LESSON: Find your own problems.

If there is no brief, write your own. If there is no insight, uncover your own. Pester the strategists. If there is no strategist, become your own. Think like the customer. And then shackle yourself. Time box yourself. Limit the amount and kind of artwork you can use. Limit the types of expressions you can use. Even better, pick up a pencil and a piece of paper. If you can’t write it and draw it, go back and start again with a new idea.

THE LAST THING: When you make it harder, you actually make it easier.

And remember that no matter how hard it is to come up with cool ideas that solve problems, and while it is super hard most days, THAT’S OUR JOB. THAT’S WHAT WE’RE HERE TO DO.

And that, my friends, is pretty cool.

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