“Does it have to be a light bulb?”

by Brian Mercer

It’s the punchline to an old joke about the number of art directors it takes to change a light bulb. It usually gets a laugh and a nod from other ad folks—art directors wonder why it’s funny—thinking outside the bulb is what we do. It’s why you love us and, at times, hate us.

But you can’t blame us because really, it’s just our nature. We’re compelled to keep pushing ideas—radical ideas—through controlled experimentation. That is, experimentation controlled by the understanding we are not free to follow an arbitrary or solitary path to an end, rather it’s incumbent on us to dive deep when we’re trying to understand our brands, our clients and in particular, their customers.

“Creative concepts pushed to brilliance can only be achieved through collaboration.”

For those who are open to them, big ideas are manifest through the countless and widely varied areas of knowledge from which we draw. They can come as inspiration from other creative ideas that missed the mark, from a team status meeting, even from something we watched on TV or happened to see at a museum. These ideas can at first appear inconsequential, unlikely, and even absurd at times, mostly because they don’t follow a linear path. It’s an iterative process that requires childlike curiosity, high energy, a willingness to be wrong—sometimes ridiculously wrong—and an openness to listen to others and explore the connections they see. The big idea is never one idea, its many ideas brought together.

Creative concepts pushed to brilliance can only be achieved through collaboration. Everyone we collaborate with is obligated to push us, to challenge our work over and over until it achieves the goal that it set out to accomplish. Each discipline along this journey influences the process—insights from strategic, account, brand planning, media, consumers—all matter and help contribute to an idea that isn’t cool for the sake of being cool but is one that illuminates a way forward.

And yes, sometimes it does have to be a light bulb. But can we change the color, make it fluorescent —how about one of those old-style Edison bulbs? And do we have any say about the fixture?