Where are all the old masters in advertising?

Why do so many advertising professionals seem to make their biggest contributions early in their careers? They may stay in the industry, but they stop innovating on their own. I just finished reading Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by University of Chicago-based economist David Galenson and he might have the answer.

While I have some issues with the Chicago School of Economics, Galenson looked at the careers of prominent painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, and even movie directors, identified when they produced their groundbreaking work, and their individual creative processes. Then, he employed the tools and processes of his discipline to determine if there were any patterns in their work styles, motivation, and/or other attributes.

Based on the results, he argued that there are two distinctly different approaches to creating art:

1) Experimental innovators: “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. … These artists repeat themselves. … Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over the others. They consider production of a painting (or other type of creative work) as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than make finished paintings (or in producing other artwork). Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving work slowly over long periods.” These artists tend to produce their most important, groundbreaking work later in their careers and are the “Old Masters.” Think Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Hitchcock, or Mark Twain.

2) Conceptual innovators: These artists are “motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or as a desired process for the work’s execution. … Conceptual innovations appear suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. These are the “Young Geniuses.” They tend to produce their most important, groundbreaking work early in their careers. Think F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Wells, or Andy Warhol.

For the health of an artistic discipline, both are needed. The advantage for conceptual innovators is found in the ability to “produce simple solutions for old problems.” The contributions for experimental innovators “typically involve superb craftsmanship” and “are praised for their wisdom and judgment.” And, if I am reading Galeson’s theory correctly, conceptual artists tend to be more self-referential; their groundbreaking work is more of a commentary on previous styles or a reinvention of work done by others while experimental artists tend to be more focused on capturing or conveying unique and/or new perceptions.

Which brings us to advertising. If you don’t make a huge contribution early in your career, you probably won’t get a chance to make one later. And creative directors seek art directors and copywriters who can do that, which virtually eliminates most people who fall into the experimental innovation camp. However, experimental artists are the ones who are better able to build lifelong careers while conceptual artists tend to get in a rut and become dated.

There’s a simple explanation why this tends to be the case. Galenson’s pointed out that experimental innovators are never satisfied with the results of their work. That’s is why they repeat themselves, trying to get it right. On the other hand, Conceptual Innovators stop innovating; they develop their “new solution to an old problem” and then keep using that solution.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just look at Picasso. He worked in many different conceptual styles throughout his career and, at times, even worked in two or more styles concurrently.

I wonder how much richer our field would be if we had more room for both types of innovators. Just imagine the simple solutions of the conceptual innovator coupled with the life-long, keep pushing forward attitude, new perceptions, and dedication to craftsmanship of the experimental innovator.

As Galeson argues, both types of artists could learn from the other. I believe we just don’t have enough experimental innovators in our industry.

What do you think? Who do you see in the industry as a conceptual innovator and who is an experimental innovator? What kind of creative innovator are you? Please click on the comment below and let me know.


T. Willerer said...

great post. i think you're on to something. here are some reasons why advertising attracts and promotes "conceptual innovators:"

--it's not art, and we can't thoroughly prove that it works. Therefore, the new thing is harder to disprove than the old (at least for the moment).

--because we don't know what works, we are looking for someone (anyone) to have confidence in their approach.

--in general, the industry lacks patience and discipline. CMOs get fired and agencies lose business quickly. even when it's not their fault.

Jim Morris said...

I find it frustrating, this blahhg thing. By the time I get around to reading a post, it feels too late. We're already on to the next thing. What I'd like to do is give your post a little thought, maybe look into it a little, and submit a thoughtful, reflective response. But that wouldn't happen for a few days, by which time this post would be ancient history, and submitting a comment, pointless.

So I'll just say that this distinction between experimental and conceptual innovators didn't immediately ring true to me. Of the few true innovators I've known and/or worked with, most seem to be some combination of these two profiles, which makes me think it's an artificial distinction. Of course, I've known so few, it's not a very meaningful sample.

Regardless, I thank you for posting something provocative.

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