How creatives get ready to craft

By Ruby Derrick | 18 March 2024
Credit: ameenfahmy via Unsplash.

Early mornings, a strong brew of coffee, New York Times Mini Crosswords, a few scribbles on a page. 

This is how creatives start their mornings, in the current climate of broken pitch processes, tightening budgets and pitch frenzies

Industry insiders say that sometimes creatives can run the risk of their work becoming too self-referential or trendy if they don’t make space to discover newness. 

However, there are certain habits -- part of the morning routines, or daily setups -- creatives are doing to craft their big ideas.

For DDB Group executive creative director Psembi Kinstan, most mornings are the standard parental exhausting-but-thoroughly-enjoyable toddler battle royale.

“(Play time with my son, getting him dressed, organised, fed, out the door, dropped off, etc). It’s great. It’s a lot,” he says.

Which means that by the time Kinstan’s on the train (looking at calendar, emails, writing notes) he’s been up three or four hours and is completely wired.

“Add a coffee and it’s either going to be the most productive day of all time or I’m going into cardiac arrest,” says Kinstan.

“Let’s get this s**t going.”

Kinstan says he arrives at the office as a ball of wound-up energy, excited for the possibility of dealing with minds more rational than a three-year old’s. 

“Dump my stuff. Fill up the water jug. Clean my desk. Immediately leave my desk to check in on the CDs and teams. How are you? How are your projects going? Any roadblocks? What could help I you with to make it better?”

Workshop and prioritise, says Kinstan. If needed, go out with the team to get more coffee.

“With the biggest problems or opportunities of the day already sorted, or more likely, identified, it’s 9:15 and it’s time to get the day started,” he says.

Ogilvy executive creative director Hilary Badger always starts her creative process very, very early.

Without sounding like some kind of biohacking productivity freak, there is something very cleansing about those dim, early morning hours for producing the goods creatively, says Badger.

“No phone ringing, no email pinging, no Teams messages – well apart from the ones from fellow early-riser Toby Talbot,” she says.

Badger is not a massive note taker for creative things but when she does, she prefers not to have a physical notebook.  

“I like the Paper app and Apple pencil combo, especially for to-do lists. I am the queen of to-do lists.  Lists release me from the obligations banking up in my head,” she says.

“Then the thinking can begin. Peace, space and a double espresso; these are essential to my process.”

For Special CCO and partner Julian Schreiber, a big part of preparing for the creative day is waking up and preparing himself for being really aware and being ‘present’ in all the meetings and conversations he’s going to be part of during the day.

“It begins with drinking strong coffee, then doing Octordle which I then share with Tom (he usually thumps me) then Connections and New York Mini Crossword back to back,” he says.

Next, after a quick mini celebration or commiseration of his wins and/or losses, Schreiber puts in his cheap black earbuds.

He, of course, lost the expensive ones, he says.

“And I listen to some podcasts as I’m heading out - usually the news (I reco ‘The Briefing’) and then a second very different one, about a person, interview or topic. This seems to get my gears to start moving.

“A lot of our time now in the CCO space is spent problem solving, riffing, creating momentum, adding and improving on ideas, dealing with people puzzles, business and brand roller coasters. So I like to use the morning to essentially get my head in the game, start the machine properly, so I’m really there and giving it my best.”

Special CCO and partner Tom Martin says that while coffee once sufficed, he’s found that prioritising exercise is the best way for him to be mentally prepared for the day. 

“The trick was to pick an activity I enjoy, so I don’t resent it or make excuses to stay in bed. I do an hour of training at home, and then my wife and I go for a long walk with our dog Bowie and grab a coffee,” says Martin.

“Hey, I never said I don’t still love coffee; it’s just not enough to keep me going anymore. I also have a very competitive group whom I play Octordle against each morning, but that’s another story.”

Dentsu Creative senior art director Carleen Ramsay says she’s not settled if there isn’t a coffee and a full bottle of water on her desk beside her. 

As both a creative and a mum, Ramsay also finds it necessary to start her day early, when it’s quiet and there’s not too many distractions.

“That first 30 minutes is incredibly important for me and allows me to clear the decks - so-to-speak - before everyone else starts their day too,” she says.

“I use that time to finish up any little tasks from the day before, reply to emails, prep for the day’s meetings and complete those dreaded timesheets. Only then do I feel like I’m in the headspace to enter the ‘creative zone’, mentally clutter-free.”

Ramsay likes to start her creative process by scribbling words on a page, a few sentences to unravel an idea, and loves a good mind map too. 

“And often a visual diagram or to-do list of what deliverables are required. There’s almost always music on, a few too many tabs open on my laptop with creative inspiration, and a proactive idea or two floating in the background.”

For Amplify’s senior creative strategist Lucinda O’Brien, her setup tends to vary from day to day.

Since every day looks a bit different, embracing flexibility and novelty in her routine is essential, she says. 

“As a creative, you run the risk of your work becoming too self-referential or trendy if you don’t make space to discover newness,” says O’Brien.

“So I find it useful to start the day by gathering eclectic references and uncovering inspiration from a variety of sources–whether that means scrolling the far corners of, reading Substack (Matt Klein’s Zine and Casey Lewis’ After School and Elizabeth Goodspeed’s Casual Archivist are a few favourites), or falling down an internet rabbit hole.”

It’s a fine line between curiosity and distraction but an important task, nonetheless, says O'Brien.

BMF associate creative director and innovation lead Leila Cranswick says her daily set-up is embarrassingly basic.

She doesn't have a favourite notebook or lucky pen, nor does she have a go-to playlist or a special thinking chair.

"I’d love to say that I always start with pen and paper, but to be honest, give me a google doc in its default Arial font and I’m ready to roll," says Cranswick. 

"I will say though, if I have a creative tool, it’s the Walking Break. When I’m stuck going in one creative direction or we’ve been asked to go for the upteenth round on a brief, a walk will always help shake up the brain matter and somehow fresh ideas fall out."

“In all of this, the one aspect of my routine that tends to stay the same is writing a list of daily priorities with my morning coffee.”

Innocean digital creative director Hannah Melanson says if her creative process was an archetype, it would be a jilted lover: it requires both time and space.

“Sure, I can come up with ideas without those things. Or with those things in a different order. But in most cases, the words just don’t come out quite right – I don’t mean what I say, or I end up making a mess of it all,” she says.

Making time, for Melanson, is priority. For her, time isn’t just a luxury – it’s a rare commodity. Most weekdays, that means she’s stopped hitting the snooze button by 4:30am. 

“There’s just something about those unhurried hours of the morning that give my mind the permission it needs to wander. Even if it usually gets lost,” says Melanson.

After that, she tries to keep away from pen (never pencil) and paper (any paper will do) until the first coffee of the day kicks in.

“Then, I write. Coming from a literature background, words are always the way in. And I get as many of them down as possible to come back to throughout the day,” she says.

“Despite the considerable effort that’s gone into making my home office setup *aesthetic*, ideas seldom happen at my desk.

“Give me a carpet. A cafe. A coffee table. Just don’t ask me to open a laptop until I’ve got something to run with. I’ll always find my way back to my workspace when it’s time to craft, but it has no place in the process until I’ve had my second – or sixth – dose of caffeine, depending on the day (and the deadline).”

It’s not just about curating spaces, though, she says. It’s about creating space, which means maintaining a safe distance from her devices for long stretches of time.

“And while I’ll never hear the end about my permanent ‘Do Not Disturb’ settings from my friends, family and colleagues, at least I only hear about it a few hours after the fact. Luckily, by the time that happens, the hardest part has already been done.”

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