Fight for your right to faff around

Creatives need time to be, well, creative. Electronic diaries and non-stop meetings don’t help

What I don’t understand is that we often have seven hours of meetings a day, and the outcome of each meeting is we get asked to do some work. When are we supposed to do this work?

There are definitely more meetings than ever before. That’s partly because we’re all working harder than ever, but it’s also partly due to the introduction of the electronic diary (circa 2006), which has simply made it easier for meetings to be arranged.

And the greater quantity of meetings is not the only ill caused by the electronic calendar. Another is a blow to what one might call the ‘vibe’.

Creatives’ time is now regi­mented, accountable … it sometimes feels like working in an actuary’s office in Basingstoke. Yes, we occupy a position in the world of commerce, but we do like to feel we’re at the more rock’n’ roll end of the spectrum. And I’m pretty sure Keith Richards doesn’t use Outlook Express.

Thirdly, there is the problem that by filling every hour with a meeting, they’re eliminating our screwing-around time. This time is now more endangered than the black rhino. Creatives need plenty of free, ‘un-diarised’ time, time in which we can just fill our heads with creative ‘stuff’. Of course it may not be relevant to the particular job we’re working on now, but it could be relevant to the one we’re working on in a year. So while the removal of this time probably won’t have any immediate negative conse­quences, because you can still draw from the well that you filled previously, it will start to have negative consequences in a year or so, when you find your well is much less full than it should be.
So much for the problems; is there a solution? Actually yes – I think the smart creative can make the electronic diary work to their advantage.

You simply need to learn how to game the system. Account handlers and planners do it all the time, they have a natural ability to do it, which we creatives don’t. But since all such activity is semi-underground, no one will train you in its dark arts – you will have to teach yourself, and it’s not something you can expect to learn overnight; learning how to do it well (ie subtly) takes a bit of practice.

Your first and most important tool is the fake meeting. Yes that’s right, not every meeting you put in your diary has to be a real meeting.

If you need an hour to clear your head, or go buy a pair of trainers or whatever, put ‘Timpsons [don’t put Timpsons, put the name of one of your clients] Brain­storm’ 2pm-3pm, and hey presto, you have a free hour.

If you’re going for lunch with friends, you may need to set up several fake meetings, starting at 12.30 and ending at 3.30pm.

Second point is to pre-fill your calendar with the hours that you will need to crack a problem. When you are given a brief, do an estimate – just like a carpenter would – of how many hours you need to complete the task. Allow, say, 20 hours for a print ad and 40 for a TV ad. Enter these in your calendar, as  ‘Working on Timpsons’. Now your diary is wonderfully full, entirely devoid of the expanses of free time that account handlers just can’t leave alone.
And if some other ‘urgent’ project comes up, ask to have the deadline of the first one put back. After all, that’s what a carpenter would do. If he promises on a Monday that he’ll build you a wardrobe by Friday, and on Wednesday you ask him if he could just ‘squeeze in’ a chest-of-drawers as well, he explains that of course he can build the chest-of-drawers for Friday, but it means the wardrobe won’t be ready until Tuesday next week.

My final tip is to schedule your meetings in clumps. Since the mindset required to crack a creative brief can take a long time to get into, a half-hour meeting in the middle of the morning can cost you much more than half-an-hour – the interruption could blow an entire morning. Which means two meetings – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – could cost you
an entire day. The solution, suggested by computer programmer Paul Graham in an article on his website, is to simply schedule all your meetings from the end of the day backwards, leaving you the longest-possible uninter­rupted block of thinking time each day.

It is with highly-advanced guerrilla tactics such as these, my friends, that we can fight back against the tyranny of the electronic jackboot.

‘James McNulty’ is a creative at a
London advertising agency

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