Monday, August 11, 2014

Are You A Perfectionist?

One of the most enduring stereotypes about the creative person is that we're perfectionists.

Screenwriters do endless drafts, poets agonise over finding exactly the right word, and Art Directors re-touch the shit out of their ads until they're perfect.

Nearly every creative guru advises us to be obsessive; all the greats are described as perfectionists - David Abbott, John Hegarty, Paul Arden, everyone.

Paul Arden's obituary in The Independent recounts that he "was such a perfectionist that he was often maddeningly over budget, insisting that the smallest details be perfect, such as searching for a certain pair of wildly expensive spectacles to achieve just the right look on a face that would be seen only in passing in a TV spot."

But on the other hand, a completely opposite notion is becoming commonplace nowadays - "fail faster." It's come largely from the world of tech and digital, and the thinking is that it's better to put something out there that's imperfect, and then learn from it.

Instead of spending days crafting the perfect headline for a digital display piece, you can run the same ad with five different headlines, learn which one is most effective, and then go with that one.

There's also an awareness that perfectionism may not be efficient. Getting a piece of work from 95% perfect to 100% perfect probably takes as much time as getting it from 50% to 95% does. By that argument, perfectionism doesn't make you good, it just makes you slow.

And rather than a desire for high standards, perfectionism may simply be a symptom of neuroticism. (The top answer when I typed 'perfectionism' into Google was for a psychotherapy resource called The Centre for Clinical Interventions, a place where you can "learn to pursue healthy high standards rather than unrelenting high standards that negatively impact your life.")

I've always been the person that spends hours making sure I dot every i and cross every t. But perhaps with today's super-tight deadlines it's more important to be fast than perfect. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Interesting topic and working in account service I'm often worried about restricting the perfect work being done! But in saying that I have yet encountered a client who has the patience or budget to wait around for it. I think 95% done from a good creative is often over and above clients expectations and that last 5% of detail is often not noticed by the majority.
I also think a lot of creatives forget we work in advertising, the idea is to create work that stands out and serves a purpose and isn't just beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. Wether the specs on the talent in the background are perfect or not... I often feel anyone other than the creative looking for them won't notice the difference.

Conor said...

In my experience, most self-declared 'perfectionists' are people who can't make up their minds.

True said...

Why worry about doing something properly? After all you, you don't really need that pesky account anyway, back to the foosball!

Subjectionist said...

Who decides what is perfect?

Old CD Guy said...

I'm torn. I'm from the era when perfectionism was encouraged, even mandated at certain good agencies. At one of these I worked with Arden; he was infuriating as much for his perfectionism as his vagueness, and his tendency to change his mind 180 degrees. He would love something in the afternoon, then hate it next morning. I, on the other hand liked to work quickly, smash an idea out and declare it a work of genius which needed to be presented urgently. Let an art director finesse the details (to my specifications, of course). No alternatives. Not for me the painstaking business of archeology;digging further after the initial rush in case there was a better idea to be found. Luckily this was also the policy of the best agencies I was fortunate enough to work for back when the Earth was still cooling. 'Take it or leave us'.was the unofficial motto of one. Although sometimes when forced to continue working for the purposes of persuading a recalcitrant client by producing 5 alternatives for focus-group research, occasionally a better, award-winning idea was extruded. Perhaps even my best and most famous! But then life is full of contradictions, isn't it?

Helen said...

Perfect makes perfect I say.

Mark Starmach said...

There's a time and a place for perfection. Overtime.

Peter Grasse said...

Another interesting topic!

I recently saw Geoff Emerick speak (recording engineer on Sgt Pepper's, Abbey Road, etc) on the art of music production, and realised that his ear could hear a level of perfection beyond me because compression, as a technology, had limited the range of excellence in audio production.

Similarly, crappy You Tube videos lower the bar fro what our children deem to be 'watchable' content.....

The more we neglect perfecting our craft, the less we are aware we become of what good craft it.

Like Geoff Emerick, I know from experience that craft has value and its my job as a producer to deliver it for the welfare and prosperity of the industry as a whole.

Cam said...

Like most things in life, sometimes it's worthwhile, sometimes it's not.
Comes down to judgement.

some writer said...

I remember an agency CEO saying, during a presentation on productivity to all staff, that clients don't pay for perfectionism.

If you're taking longer than an estimate to do the work just because your standards are higher than the client's, you'll either be (a) costing the agency money by using up time they can't charge for, or (b) slogging your guts out after hours to meet you're own standards, to the detriment of your health.

Neither is particularly beneficial.

On the other hand, the ECD of the same agency was fond of saying "awards are won after hours". Which is also true. So it seems there's a very strong business case against perfectionism, and a very strong creative case for perfectionism.

At that time I was working 60 hour weeks. So permission to not be a perfectionist was quite welcome. Perfectionism is a hard habit to kick. But the perfectionist in me wants to get as good as I can at not being one.

Think now craft later said...

The problem these days is everybody wants everything perfect, even the roughs.

In the old days, tissue sessions were exactly that. Two sentences describing an idea. We'll craft the line and the scripts later, thanks, just sign off on this first.

Now with the younger, less experienced CD's coming through everything has to be polished to the point of absurdity. Even the drafts.

G said...

@Some writer

your & you're.

some writer said...


An entire article. A thread containing many insightful comments. What do you decide to add to the discussion? You decide to point out a single spelling error on a post bashed out in probably a minute and a half. No doubt as some wry comment on my purported perfectionism.

Clever you.

Anonymous said...

One man's perfect is another man's ...errmmm.... not perfect. You might spend hours making something, in your eyes, perfect, whereas other people might be thinking you're spending all your time making it crapper.

Anonymous said...

Crappier! Not Crapper.... Slow down. Write carefully. Make it perfect :)