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Creative Ops

Universal Pictures’ Peter Lung on reserving energy for wild, envelope-pushing creative work

March 15, 2023 · 5 min read

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.

What kind of creative director are you?

I’m a creative-slash-producer. Our job is basically two big parts.

Part one is the key art, which means the whole branding for the films — the foundational art assets that everything else draws from and builds on. 

Part two is creative production. Once we have the key art locked in we have to break it out into many vehicles, all building to the end goal of selling the films. So once we've done key art then we do out of home assets, digitals, theater promotion assets — all the channels we’re leveraging for a film.

I see my role as a creative director as being the bridge between reality and fantasy.

The fantasy side is the creative — our ideas can go wherever we like. The realistic side is the budget. I’m right in the middle. The budget is always the toughest challenge we face, because we can be so creative as to put literal cars on the side of a building to promote a film, but does the budget allow it? That’s a lot of production and safety measures. We could have that idea, but it’s my job to be realistic and move us on to the next idea.

Ultimately, I’m trying to identify the best possible ideas that our budget allows, and sell those ideas to stakeholders outside of the creative team in such a way that we’re all happy.

Where does the creative process tend to break down, between receiving a brief and shipping final assets?

The answer is communication.

Ideas might come down from high-level marketing VPs and EVPs and even presidents in the organization, and it’s crucial for me to find out that fine point of exactly what they want. If I don’t catch the exact right direction they were trying to communicate, we might waste time and resources working to create something that won’t be approved, and then it’s back to the drawing board. Always clarify the brief with your stakeholders.

It’s really important to double-check exactly what the brief is, especially if it’s coming down to you from a few layers above, and it’s been diluted on its way to you. Miscommunication is a dangerous thing.

How do you approach the task of assembling a team?

I have a specific method, actually, in how I evaluate creative people. It’s the 50, 25, 25 rule. 

In any industry, especially in entertainment, the creative absolutely has to hit a baseline expectation, and you have to show it up front. So that's the 50% — half the battle. You need a good library or portfolio, just a foundational understanding, to show that 50%. If this is an action movie, versus a romantic drama, versus a comedy, here are the color schemes we normally use — this sort of thing. That’s the starting point, the precedent — showing that you understand the rules of the game.

The next 25% is unspoken, or imagined. It’s you, your designs, your creative spirit. It’s originality. I don’t want to just make something that’s already on the market, I want to slip that originality in. If you’re working on a campaign with me, I want to see a piece of you make it into the campaign, every time. And I want you to show me something that portrays your original creative spirit before we embark on the project.

The final 25% is I want you to be totally wild. I want you to have fun and push the envelope. Give me ideas that you don’t even think will get approved. Surprise me. The greatest creative breaks rules and sets new ones. I want to see if you can come up with something that is so different that I’m willing to risk my career to sell it up into the organization. 

I’ve been at NBC Universal for the past 15 years or so, and this method has worked out pretty well. Most of the time, that final, risky, 25% approach doesn’t work, but if out of 20, even 100 times, it does? That’s the reward. That’s why we do this work.

How do you sustain the spirit, or motivation, of a team over time?

It’s the final 25% risk-taking approach I ask of my teams. That’s what we’re chasing; it’s fuel and motivation for the designers to come up with an idea or concept so good that it breaks the rules and makes new ones.

Again, the first 50% is the baseline, getting the job done correctly. That keeps us in business. The second 50% keeps our interest.

Creatives are like plants. A plant with die if it gets water but no sun — no real, natural energy. For a creative, the sun, the natural energy, is that opportunity to push risky, truly original ideas.

It’s quite important to me to keep my staff happy and reward them. Making sure they have the time and space to take these risks, once we get the baseline work done, is an important part of how I do that.

Sometimes those risky ideas just can’t get approved because of budget issues, but I always try to prove that, yes, we can get our jobs done and move on, but we’re capable of doing awesome things, too.

Do you have any advice for creatives early on in their careers?

The only thing I can say is do not let reality defeat your creativity.

I've been in this industry for about 23 years now. In your younger years, you'll do something great and you know it is great, but they — the vendors or the client — pick something else, and what they pick isn’t very good. Even your senior colleagues tell you what you’d produced was really great, but for some reason it just didn’t get picked. It doesn't matter. Just because a client doesn’t pick your creative doesn’t mean it’s not good or that your ideas aren’t good.

There are so many factors that go into why a certain piece of creative is chosen over another. Budget and marketing direction, usually. The most beautiful work you could produce might not most sensible for a campaign.

What I mean by not letting reality defeat your creativity is there are always factors outside of the quality of a piece of creative. You should always push your creative and execute your best ideas. Budget, marketing direction — don’t let these things limit your creative spirit. Sometimes you have to work around these things, but never give up on your wild ideas, because that’s what fuels you.

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