Creativity Squared: Deep Diving into the Idea with John Stapleton
John Stapleton (‘Stapes’) is EVP, head of creative at Trade School, an Atlanta content shop and full-service production company.
LBB> What kind of creative person are you?
John> My personality on the surface is quiet and easy-going but deep down, I’m fiercely competitive when engaged in sport, fun, or work (especially a creative pitch). So I would say I’m an ambivert if you look at both sides of me.
As for creativity, given my 1980s/90s BMX Freestyle upbringing (yep, that was a thing), I will always think of myself as a creative ‘freestyler.’ Someone who loves very few rules or restrictions in order to push the creative boundaries that exist in front of me. I also enjoy practicing a repeated exercise over and over again to form new ways of progressive creative thinking. This process makes me believe that creativity is absolutely something you learn over time. Creativity is a muscle you train. It just needs to be fuelled by curiosity, patience and tenacity.
LBB> How do you judge the creativity of a piece of work?
John> Judging creativity is complicated and quite awkward for me. To be asked if an idea is good or bad is super personal for everyone. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many ideas out there that are absolutely boring and should not be considered worthy of interest. But there are ideas out there that speak to me personally that may not get the attention of others. There are also ideas out there that change how societies think and create movements and those are usually universally loved. But if I was pushed to break down some form of criteria of what I think is good, I would say it needs to check three boxes:
- Is it relevant?
- Is it disruptive?
- Is it shareable?
These three questions will usually get you something fairly to the top of the good pile.
As for work I’m seeing today, it’s more about what I’m NOT seeing. Our funny bone. Advertising is an industry of reactions to cultural generalities and being funny just isn’t in the cards for most work at the moment, and it’s depressing. Things are very serious and safe and the work reflects this big time. I would love to see more rule-breaking and light-heartedness. Humour was that tool and it’s being forgotten or avoided. I see it affecting creative cultures as well. I once overheard a creative talking about a provocative and funny screenplay they are working on and refused to share it in fear of judgment from executives. People are afraid to stick their necks out and exercise their sense of humour. Kinda sad, isn’t it?
LBB> Tell us about how you like to make creative work
John> When I start a project, I spend the majority of my time learning. Like literally all of the time to be honest. I never stop asking questions, researching and studying the product, target audience, history of the product and category, five-star reviews, and most importantly, complaints from customers in the brand’s social news feeds. This helps me get a baseline of knowledge to work from. It also helps me take this information and thoughts to combine it with older thoughts to solve the challenge.
As the research phase is in full swing, I love to do something that sounds crazy. I take on another project and do the same thing. I’m a bit of a workaholic so it plays to my advantage but it also helps me put aside the original challenge and not allow me to think so hard about it. Then the combinations happen. Some good. Some not-so-good. But they happen.
When an idea I love starts to materialise, I then rapidly prototype it. This is either me telling my ‘brain trustees’ (you should always have these people in your life) the idea to get an honest opinion. If it passes with little bloodshed, I’ll try to take the idea to completion by myself. Draw it, photograph it, film it and edit it. Whatever it takes to bring it to life in its rawest and most imperfect form so I can see how ugly it can be. It only goes up from there and I iterate and improve it along the way by bringing in additional and better talent as I go. As for being finished...That’s the minute it hits the media space. Any minute before that is fair game to change and improve it for me.
LBB> What external factors have shaped you and what can make or break a creative project?
John> I grew up in York, Pennsylvania. York was known for wallpaper, air conditioners, Peppermint Patties and most importantly BMX Freestyle. BMX was my creative outlet and thanks to being around a group of the best riders in the world (Plywood Hoods), I got pretty damn good at it.
The best part about this creative lifestyle was it taught me what a diverse and thriving creative culture actually was and helped me progress my new ideas as we practiced together. It was a support group of creatives who were obsessed with what’s possible and not possible. We entered some contests and won a bunch of them. But that really wasn’t the goal. The goal was to push each other to new heights and have fun doing it.
As for the design and art direction skills, this was baked into the culture. The national magazines, local ‘zines, videos, and apparel were all DIY and grassroots for us. I even participated as a rider, photographer, and editor. This is where I cared deeply about design, typography, photography, and videography. To this day, I enjoy exercising my side hustle by helping brands with packaging design and helping close friends with book cover designs. I see creativity as a way of life. Not something you turn off and on. If you see the world this way, a thriving creative culture will inherently be born and ideas will flow freely. Not to mention having fun. That’s the most important part.