The argument for creative chameleons.

Not one-trick ponies.

“Can you show me some previous examples of work you’ve done in the X category.”

“We’re looking for a senior creative with an extensive background in X.”

“B2B SaaS brand looking for a B2B SaaS specialist agency.”

I get it. You want to deal with an expert, someone with experience. Someone ‘safe’. But we aren’t mechanical engineers or astrophysicists. Where a naive mistake brings a building down. In fact, a wrong turn might be the very thing that makes it stand.

Because advertising isn’t about fitting in to one style or category or trend.

It’s about standing out.

‘What type of work do you do?’

‘Can you give me some examples of your writing style?’

And that requires bending and breaking rules and category norms, not replicating them. Often, that requires borrowing from outside the category, and coming at it with fresh eyes and a healthy kind of blissful ignorance.

As an example, here’s two campaigns we worked on at the same time and released on the same day (literally), for the same client, in the same category, but for two distinctively different brands.

We were quite literally jumping between these two campaigns for months. If we had a ‘style’ or ‘category approach’, this wouldn’t be possible.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely value in having category knowledge or experience. Massively. But not above all else. The reason being that it’s far easier for an infinitely curious creative to add another string to their bow than it is for a seasoned ‘beauty and fashion retail expert’ or ‘B2B comms wizard’ to suddenly become a great all round creative.

Not only that, but it’s also more likely that a versatile creative with a fresh perspective will bust a category open than it is for someone who’s been staring at, writing, and designing the same stuff over and over again making some kind of monumental leap.

Which is why marketers should be looking for, and creatives should aim to become, chameleons. Not one-trick ponies. Even if they do most of their work in a particular category.

I got my break in advertising by writing stupid viral internet content. So when I started in the business, I naturally gravitated to making weird absurd comedy. Because it’s what came naturally.

Here’s my first big ad.

And I kept making lots more silly stuff. Here’s another.

But eventually what became apparent is that lols weren’t always going to be the answer.

The moment this hit the hardest was working on a comedy-resistant client on a difficult, long, multi-round brief that landed with us pitching an emotive mini-doco series. To help paint a picture, I wrote six three-minute scripts which required inventing six different characters that felt like real people. So I came up with completely unique personalities and back stories and tones and deliveries for each. One of them was a guy named ‘Big Red’, a fly-in-fly-out miner who worked in extremely remote areas, the nature of his work meant he rarely got to see his kids, and his story was laden with the sad irony that the very motivation for putting himself through what he did was the very thing keeping him from them. (And this was all just for the internal review, btw.) When I looked up, someone in the room was almost in tears and said something like, “Fuck, Jess. You need to stop with the dumb stuff and do more of this.”

Now anyone that knows me knows I will NEVER stop with the dumb stuff. I refuse. I will be silly til’ the grave. But, in that moment, I did learn that there is far more in me than just ‘the dumb stuff’.

I started looking at briefs and brands that weren’t ‘in my wheelhouse’ as more creative challenges to rise to. I started seeking reference points I would’ve previously glossed over. I started paying more attention to design and art direction. I started researching the hell out of products and categories I wasn’t naturally enamoured with. I started attempting to draw deeper emotive responses from people. I went through the chest to the heart, not just a belly laugh. And I started winning briefs and pitches across all kinds of brands and categories. Over time, looking at briefs as an opportunity to push my limits, rather than ‘do my thing’, helped me become a more versatile weapon.

Over time, the dude that made the dumb stuff could also make this stuff.

I would wager that many enduring creatives reading this have had a similar moment of clarity somewhere along the way.

With discomfort, comes growth. Learn new things, meet new people, gain fresh perspectives. It will make you a better creative.

Extrapolate this out, and you’ll find the best agencies have a department of chameleons. Art directors that write. Writers that paint. Designers with $10,000 cameras. Creative directors with three unfinished screenplays and novels sitting in their bottom drawer. (We’ll get to them one day. One day…)

What this means for an agency is that there are no intimidating briefs. And they’re going to be able to come at them from a completely different angle than the people who previously worked on the brand, or who are currently pitching on it.

For clients, what you ultimately want is for your brand to stand out and earn an unfair share of attention, and getting that requires a constant source of fresh thinking. Not just more category wallpaper. A building of talented, hungry, curious people keen to devour the opportunity to work on something new, rather than just going on one more trip around the sun.

So, the next time you’re hunting for an agency, or a freelancer, don’t just look for ‘category experience’, because you might only get what you ask for. Look at the work and the thinking and the energy of the people, then you might get something you didn’t ask for.

Something new.

Something fresh.

Something better.

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