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My Biggest Lesson: Elliott Starr

The senior copywriter at 20something explains why the beginning of a creative career can be a very exciting, but very frustrating time - and why it requires both patience and discipline

My Biggest Lesson: Elliott Starr

I recently did some digital guest lecturing with the wonderful students at Leeds Arts University.

It was a personal attempt to try and counteract a year that dealt aspiring creatives a pretty shitty hand, and help alleviate some of the uncertainties around breaking into advertising, in a potentially-post-pandemic world.

I’ve since found myself reflecting on the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my career, and I’ve realised, deadly global virus or not, it still holds true for aspiring creatives today.

In order to best share it with eyeballs that careen across this page, let me paint a picture:

Imagine the dream scenario. We’ve reached Asgard.

We actually did it. We got a job in advertising. 

We’re bursting at our double-stitched seams with potential. 

We just need the opportunity to show people what we’re really capable of. We just need the right brief, at the right time, to drop onto our desk, and we’re going to knock it out of the park.

There’s just one issue, that probably isn’t going to happen. 

Is that right? No. Is it true of every creative company? No. 

At 20something, we pride ourselves on ensuring that everyone, regardless of their experience level, gets opportunities that could, with enough love, blood, sweat and tears, and with the wind blowing in the right direction, make their career. 

But, sadly, I think we’re one of the exceptions, not the rule. Why? The reasons are myriad:

- When we’ve just started our career, what we don’t know massively outweighs what we know, and we’re likely operating at 10% of what we will be capable of with more insight, wisdom, maturity, and experience. It would be weird, wouldn’t it (and a bit depressing), if in the first year of our career, we knew 90% of everything we were ever going to know, and we were 90% as good as we were ever going to be? Ira Glass goes into a little more detail, here

- We’re still learning to find that sweet spot of work that moves the dial for a business, and genuinely shifts a product, or solves a brand or business problem, because of its creativity. As opposed to something which is beautiful, but not functional, or functional, but not beautiful.

- In order to find it, we have to do a lot of work. We have to make mistakes. Creative companies aren’t going to let us put in our reps, and make our mistakes, on their best opportunities. If they do, they will almost always ensure their big-hitting seniors are on the brief, too. Big opportunity brings big pressure to deliver on said opportunity. So, the creative company turns to people who are as close to a sure bet for cracking the brief, as possible. So now, we’re not only climbing the Everest of cracking the brief, we’re also wearing the weighted vest of cracking it better than the seniors. Ouch.

As a result, at the start of our career, our potential outweighs not just our performance, but often our opportunities, too. If we’re hungry, and conscientious, we likely know every piece of industry-leading work. We can reel off the year’s pencil winners like our weekly takeaway order. There’s just one problem, the briefs we’re getting are about as inspiring as a shit in a sock.

Slowly and surely, a voice in our head (mine is Donald Sutherland) begins to whisper:

“How can you be expected to create work of that calibre, with the briefs you’re getting? Win a Grand Prix with an Asda shelf wobbler? I don’t want to be a Nancy Naysayer, but I’m just not sure that’s possible. That’s like asking someone to do a backflip in a phonebox. I’ve been making films for nearly 60 years. I’ve worked with the best stunt actors in the world, and trust me, I’ve never, ever, seen someone backflip in a phone box.”

Donald does have a point. How are we ever going to create Grand Velas tacos when all we’re being given to work with is turnips? How are we ever going get ourselves into a beautiful cycle of opportunity like this:



To make great work, we need to be given the opportunity to do so. But to be given that opportunity, people need to believe we can make great work. Often, they only really do, if we already have. Infuriating stuff, this, isn’t it? We all go through it, and the lucky amongst us discover how to break the cycle:


If we’re working in an office - the senior creatives who get the best briefs have to go home at some point. So, we can sneak over to their desk, pinch the brief, make a copy of it, and pop it back. 

We can also make friends with the people in traffic / project management. Or strategy. Or account handling. Or whoever boomerangs out the briefs, and is in a constant state of anxiety that not enough work, and not enough good work, is going to boomerang back.

We can learn to make their life consistently easier. We can become the go-to individual for making these people’s headaches go away. Soon enough, we’ll find they are very receptive to the work we weren’t asked to do, on the brief we weren’t supposed to have. Better yet, they’ll probably start slipping them to us. 

Sidenote: as we’re not supposed to be working on this stuff, anyway, this is not the place, or the time, to be cautious. Caution and creativity are mutually exclusive. This is where we show what we’re capable of. This is where we blossom. This is where we glow up.


For the first few years of my career, all of the best work I made was on briefs no one had asked me to do - proactive briefs for clients in the company, proactive briefs for clients I went out and found, side projects - little things, businesses, or brands I created myself. Eventually, the agency briefs I received improved, because I had created work that showed I deserved opportunity.

Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? So, where do we start?

If we’re going to make proactive ideas happen, we need to start building our hustle muscle. We’re going to need to become an absolute samurai at pulling favours and making things happen. 

We have to lead with value. Let’s say we need someone to give us an hour in a recording studio. Ok, how is that going to be of value to the person who gives it to us? How are we going to make sure it is? If not now, on this project, then how, and when? (We might consider reading ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ to brush up on this.)

Next, we need to understand what sort of proactive ideas become a reality. There are always anomalies. But most have a few things in common. Say hello to ‘Best. Most. Least’. 

Best

They utilise the thing we are best at. They also represent something the best people in our industry would agree the best work looks, feels, and tastes like.

Most

The idea is something where we, and the people we can convince to help us, can do most of the grunt work. We need to get our idea as close to reality as possible. It needs to be a present for our company, not a problem. 

I.e. 

“Hey, we’ve done this thing, it’s amazing, it’s basically finished. We wrote it. Our friend is a young director and they shot it for free. Then their mate graded it. The production values are actually better than that Fish Fingers film we spent £500k on last month, and this actually has an idea in it, too, which is great. We just need half an hour in a recording studio to record a voiceover. Are there any VO records coming up we could piggyback on?”

Not

“Hey, we’ve got this idea, it’s scribbled on the back of a Tesco Express receipt. Can we take up an hour of the management team’s time to half-assedly pitch it?”

It should also represent something that, if properly launched, with the wind blowing in the right direction, will have the most impact, for the most people. 

Least

It can be made a reality for the least amount of time, money, and client approvals, possible. A proactive idea that has to go through two clients at an independent brewery is far more likely to become a reality than an idea that has to go through 20 at Carlsberg.

But, now comes the warning: 

90% of these endeavours will die a grizzly, pathetic death. I speak from experience. In 2016 ‘the dry/ clean initiative’ became a reality and received lots of lovely pats on the back. It was yummy. But it was the result of a savage 3.5 year battle to make something of its calibre. It was the only Knight that made it into the enemy’s castle. Hundreds, neigh, thousands, perished. You shall never be forgotten.

They didn’t die because “all clients are tossers”, or because “no one understood how insanely brilliant I was”. They died because the life of proactive ideas always lays in a delicate balance. So many factors affect whether they become a reality. Not just how good, or cheap, or easy they are. 

They can die for the most unexpectedly absurd reasons. What about that proactive idea with the footballer who our mate’s mate’s sister's fiancée knows? The one that died because he got his willy out on social media. That’s one to grieve forever.

Then there’s timing - financial timing, cultural timing (internal company culture, the client/ agency relationship, internal client company culture, societal culture). Don’t forget energy, either.
The odds of anyone getting a proactive idea off the ground in the first week of January are pretty low for this reason - we’re all knackered, hungover, depressed, and most people are still on holiday.

Hell, proactive ideas die because, sometimes, that’s just what ideas do. But (and it’s an important but) if we have enough of them, eventually, they stop dying.

What’s so important about all this stuff, anyway?

It’s important because as much as our industry loves to throw attention and shiny bits of metal at us when we hit a home run, we can only dine out on a hit single for so long. We’re not just creative people, we’re creative professionals - that requires consistency. We need to build reputations as people who consistently create greatness, and occasionally create brilliance.

If we’re not creating Grand Velas tacos, despite regularly being given the ingredients, the ingredients we’re given are slowly going to downgrade. Before we know it, we can be working with turnips again, and quickly find ourselves in a reverse cycle of opportunity.


If all we’re ever working with is turnips, we’re never going to create much beyond turnip soup. You can only create so much turnip soup before people start looking around and saying:

“Have you noticed how everything Donald produces is kind of… turnip soup?”

But that’s not going to happen to you, is it? Because, now you understand how the cycle of opportunity works, how valuable it is, and how to sneak past the bouncers and get into it.

The beginning of our career can be a very exciting, but very frustrating time. We have to have both patience, and discipline. 

If we are disciplined, but not patient, we will always be disappointed, because we never give our discipline enough time to yield results.

If we are patient but not disciplined, we once again will always be disappointed, because we never give our time enough discipline for it to yield results. 

Then, there’s the immortally important word - pace. We have to work at a sustainable pace. 

Only this way, are we able to play the best game we can, with the hand we’ve been dealt. 

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