Wieden+Kennedy’s Nik Reed on learning to create without fear
This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.
You became an Associate Creative Director just over one year ago. What does the role mean to you?
Historically, at Wieden+Kennedy, it used to be this big jump to go from senior creative to managing creatives as a creative director. The ACD role became a thing relatively recently, just a few years ago. It’s an opportunity for senior creatives to figure out what the process is and what managing people is like, because it’s a completely different job.
When I was an art director, my thinking was very much: we come up with the ideas, we present them to the creative directors, and they just tell us whether the idea is good or not. That’s it. What I’ve realized is that, when I was a creative, there was a sort of comfort in being able to just freely come up with ideas and present them to my creative directors. There was this objectivity that existed where they were just deciding if the idea was right or wrong.
Now, as an ACD, I’m deciding what’s good and bad and deciding what idea works best for any given brief. You have to be so much quicker and still maintain that creative mindset. It’s also about fostering younger talent, and helping their ideas come to life and grow.
Identifying whether or not an idea is good means making many split-second decisions. Maybe it’s good but we can make it better; maybe it’s not good but there’s a clear way we can make it good, even great. As a creative, you want someone to be decisive for you, to guide you and direct you, to make those split-second calls. Growing into the ACD role has meant learning to give feedback super fast and succinctly so that there’s a path forward for the creative to grow and have the best chance of being effective.
How do you know what decisions to make, when to make them? How do you train that decisiveness?
At Wieden+Kennedy, there’s this saying: fail harder. Which is really just permission to be wrong. When that’s the mantra, the ethos of creative in the entire building, it allows you and frees you up to be more open when you’re critiquing work: is this the right answer? Is this the wrong answer? I don’t know . . . but here’s what I think.
You learn to trust the people who put you in your position; you trust your creative instinct because they trust it. And that allows you to make decisions a lot faster. Hopefully, those decisions will be more or less correct, but at the very least they're coming from a place that’s trying to evoke some type of emotion.
Again, as creatives, we have this understanding that all of this is subjective. Everything we do is a matter of taste. Everyone has their own opinions. But when you go into it knowing that there’s necessarily no “right” answer, you’re free to agree collectively that something is cool, is exciting, and will be fun to make, instead of whether something is right or wrong.
Can you share any major lessons from your first year of being an ACD?
The most important thing I’ve learned is the ability to champion other people’s ideas. When you first start out as a creative, there’s an innate selfishness — “it’s my idea, I think it’s really cool, I want to get it made, I want it to look like this and sound like this.” To be a good creative director, though, you have to give other people the opportunity to see their ideas produced and flourish.
It’s now my job, as an ACD, to guide other people’s work to be as good as it can be. The feeling I get when a creative team I’m working with sells something through and achieves that level of success has become the same joy I got when I was a creative selling through my own ideas. It’s been a really gratifying mindset shift.
How do you create an environment that's conducive to the type of creativity and collaboration necessary to do this work?
It starts with an open-door policy. My creative partner and I are very much open books. We make it clear to the people we’re working with: if you have a question, if you have a thought, you can come to us. We’ll work on it together.
As a young creative, when I first started out, there was always a fear of being wrong. But that’s one of the biggest hindrances to creativity — going into a room, having an idea, but not really wanting to say it out loud because you think you might be wrong, that you might get laughed out of the room. It’s the creative version of having that bad dream where you’re in class with nothing but your boxers on.
The fear of being wrong is so primal and so corrosive. You have to create an atmosphere that shuts out the fear. You need to be open so people feel like they can talk to you comfortably and be somewhat vulnerable, no matter how crazy their ideas may seem. That type of atmosphere produces the best work; you can’t make good work if you’re scared.
The work we all gravitate to, the stuff we look back on and think, “man, that was so cool,” all feels like it was a little risky at the time. It feels like you got away with something. If people don’t feel like they have the ability or permission to propose crazy ideas, you’ll never end up with that kind of work.
It goes back to Wieden+Kennedy’s “fail harder” ethos. We used to roll our eyes at it, but it’s a core tenet for a reason: it allows those fearless ideas to prosper.
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
You need room for solitude. To be able to think on your own, to take a brief and sit with it for a second. To go to a coffee shop, go to the park, to just be with yourself and think about things. It’s really tough to grapple with something if you’re having to think out loud all the time. I know I was stressing the “fail harder, no dumb ideas,” view earlier, but you do need to form some thoughts before you talk to someone.
Second, a good takeout spot. In the heat of working on a new project or idea, you need a spot that can hold you down for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes when a project gets hard the only bright spot might be the meals that you have throughout the day, so having a beloved spot to order from really comes in handy.
Last thing is the Notes app. This is something I’ve been using more and more recently. I love having the ability to just put down my random thoughts that pop up, instantly. I used to be much more of a formal, ritual thinker — I’m gonna get my space set up, sit down, and type out all my ideas. But I’ve found that great ideas can come at any moment, I just have to make sure to jot them down.
Tell me more about where you find your best inspiration.
The most important thing to being a creative is curiosity. I truly think that’s the single most important aspect to being creative. That’s how I got into the creative field — I didn’t start in design and art direction super early, I just saw a video somewhere and thought it was cool, so I went on YouTube and started figuring out how it was made. I taught myself After Effects and kept on going until I’d learned the entire Adobe Creative Suite. At the time I had no idea what I was doing, but looking back I was just following my curiosity.
A lot of the best advertising is usually inspired by anything other than advertising. You need a wide palette of creative and social experiences to make good work. I’ve always been really into film, so a lot of my creative starting points are there. Beyond that it’s really just the arts in general. When I started out I would have creative directors tell me to go to The Met, head to MoMA, or just walk around the city for a few hours, and work in different environments. Maybe there’s not something specific in there that inspires you, but there’s a much higher likelihood of coming up with a good idea there than if you’re just sitting in the office looking at other ads and trying to figure out where they got their ideas.
What is the best advice you’ve received in your time as a working creative?
There’s a quote I heard recently, I believe it’s attributed to Dan Wieden. My creative partner and I were talking about some project we were working on, and he paraphrased it: “It’s not science, it’s jazz.” I think that’s the best way to encapsulate being creative, especially in the context of modern advertising.
There’s no formula to yield a successful outcome in advertising. It’s so many different things happening each time. You can try something that was successful in a campaign last year and it’ll fail this time, for whatever reason. You make great work through improv, through spontaneity. It goes back to creating an environment of fearlessness. You have to try new things and be prepared to deal with situations you could never anticipate. You’re going to be caught off guard and you have to be ready to react.
Another thing is that when we’re judging work, there’s often a tendency to over-strategize. Did this idea hit that point, this point, the other point? Again, sometimes all that really matters is how it makes you feel, and there might not be one thing you can point at as the reason why it produced that feeling, why it’s good.
The best creative makes you feel something, and the reasons why are sometimes intangible, but that’s what we’re always chasing. Maybe you’re told to make a six-second bumper ad. Alright, I don’t know if I can tell an intricate story in just six seconds, but maybe I can get a joke off or do something that grabs someone’s attention. You have to try. Just don’t approach it with a formula. Be open to what the thing could be and allow it to become something more than just a brief fulfilled.