Great work comes from not being at work

The other day Andy, our creative director, said something that had been festering in my gut for a while. Something that turns me into an anxious, fidgety wreck every time I receive a new brief. Something that makes me want to smash my MacBook with my iPhone.

His words were:

“We’re not going to do our best work by looking at our computers all day”.

In an industry where tight budgets and even tighter deadlines demand the right answers yesterday, the easy thing to do is to get in the comfortable, familiar posture of mouse in one hand and detox smoothie in the other (new year, new meh) and scroll through the internet. Because the internet has all the answers. Good old internet.

What the internet is good for is finding information. Today we have more of the universe at our fingertips than ever – clever sparks that ignite our brains into action are only a click away. But I fear what we’re gaining in online mental ignition, we’re losing in real life experience. And real life experience is what reveals the hidden truths that turn these sparks of cleverness into great ideas. The fresh ideas that resonate with real people in the real world.

What we can learn from David Simon.

David Simon is the genius behind the hugely respected US TV series The Wire. In 1988, David took a year out from being a crime journalist at the Baltimore Sun to write the factual book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. This book was followed by two more books and a TV miniseries, The Corner. Then came The Wire in 2002. Regularly cited as the greatest TV drama ever made, The Wire was most notable for its gritty realism and shockingly truthful depiction of urban life both sides of the law. Like all good writers, David spent years studying his subject. But it wasn’t time spent reading about what was happening on the streets that gave him his spark, it was the year he spent shadowing the Baltimore Police Department. A year strapped into a bulletproof vest attending the aftermaths of murders, robberies and drug overdoses – he even assisted in an arrest when one of the cops he was riding with got trapped by a faulty seat belt. David learnt the lexicon of the corner kids first hand. He went on boozy benders with the cops who’d accepted him as one of their own. He discovered with his own eyeballs the hidden truths of life as a cop, a drug dealer and a junkie, all of which gave The Wire’s storylines unrivalled plausibility. The result was not just the realest depiction of ‘cops and robbers’ ever made, but the most complete analysis of inner city life ever seen in popular culture.

Now, I’m not comparing the writing of a seminal piece of TV literature with the selling of soap through tweets. What I am doing, in addition to revealing my unhealthy obsession with The Wire, is showing that all the reading, watching, interviewing and internetting in the world cannot replicate personal experience. Have you used the product you’ve been briefed to sell? If you’re asked to advertise the benefits of swimming, then go for a swim and see how it makes you feel. These personal experiences are the truths that make our work real and effective.

On the other side of the same hand, our experiences don’t necessarily have to be directly linked to the brief. Go to an exhibition or museum, listen to what people are talking about on the bus. Just get out into the real world and experience the good and the bad for yourself. If anything, the distraction of doing stuff other than work will let the clever internet sparks fester in your subconscious until something you see, touch, feel or hear sets off a ‘eureka’ moment – where you discover an unexpected connection between what you’re selling and something interesting, funny or emotional that people can relate to.

In my opinion, getting out of the office is the difference between creating good work and influencing people with great work made of intricate, everyday truths. It’s why I’m now about to ask if I can have the afternoon off to go paintballing. Wish me luck.

Daniel Simpson

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