A different creative philosophy: “Who does it serve?”

Okay here’s the thing. In the creative services world, we talk a lot about service, usually in the context of account service — keeping the client happy, soliciting approvals, managing expectations, and keeping projects on time and on budget. And while my AE sisters and brothers are often worthy of a blog post or two, today I’m talking about service of another kind.

In particular, I’m talking about service to others. The client included. But in this case, I’m also talking about service to one’s community, to one’s colleagues, and connections. Service to humankind.

People. Yeah. Remember them?

For me, at this point in my (long-but-not-even-close-to-over) career, this is the thing that is most important. It’s the inflection point at which I decide to take on a job or not. When an opportunity arises, the first thing I ask is, “Who does it serve?” The answer, aside from determining if we go forward, has a direct impact on the creative product.

(In fact, I’ve added the question to my creative brief.)

Looking back, I have done some work for efforts that largely served shareholder value (projects for big brands you would all recognize — yes the one you’re thinking of, and that one as well, and that one, too.) as well as work for initiatives that serve real people in their everyday lives. And a comparison of the two chunks of resulting work is not even close. The ideas that serve people rather than share price are always so much better in my experience.


Well, for one, when a client and their agency are focused on serving the customer, the community, or society, and not themselves, there is goodness baked into the process from the very beginning. The work is good in every sense of the word.

The work we did for the Nantucket Shellfish Association served an entire community. And that felt good. (Follow the above link to see the video.) Director/DP: The amazing Danny Driscoll of September Productions. I am honored to have served with him.

But when the client and agency are focused on market share, research data, or keeping the boss from exploding, the anxiety level of everyone goes up and the creative flow goes down.

Another thing: when you are serving real people in your work, you tend to take an interest in their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their pain points, and desires. And the work you do becomes more targeted and personal and relevant. How can that kind of work not succeed?

In my former agency life, there have been more than a few occasions where we have sat down as a team and looked at the brief and we think (often out loud), “well, this is bullshit.” It’s clear to everyone involved that we are doing the work for some kind of petty corporate exercise and not because we are going to deliver something that people want or need.

And it feels awful. The work carries the acrid stink of cynicism, cheapness and corporate posterior covering. The team hates itself for playing a role.

This is a point worth amplifying — when you take a stance of service in your creative work, you actually feel good about what you do. You can look your kids in the eye and say, “I did something good today.” And that improves one’s own sense of self-worth and fulfillment.

Anyone who feels pride for creatively building market share for a product that does not serve some greater good (Alcohol? Fast food? Insurance? Soap? Fossil fuels?) is, I suspect, leading a somewhat hollow professional and personal life. Whether they realize it or not. There’s a word for people like that and it’s not a word that anyone wants pinned on them. Yeah. That word.

Ask yourself, how can any work be truly good if it’s not doing good?

Now I realize that not everyone who works in the creative biz gets to choose what they work on. I feel for creative folks in agencies that serve large corporate brands. Hey, I used to work for an agency whose best client manufactured geotextile pond linings and rubber roofing. Who was that serving? It’s unclear. I’m sure it served someone. Still, that was never our focus when we worked on that stuff. We. Never. Asked. The. Question.

But at some point in one’s career, one does get to choose. And ask. This desire to be of service is why I work for myself and specialize in the transportation sector. I like helping people get to work. I like serving the commuter. I like supporting solutions that are green and sustainable and good for everyone.

Good reading for anyone who values service.

Two books that have helped me formulate my thoughts around the subject of service:

  1. Give and Take by Adam Grant, which is a super book about the upside (and downside) of being a giver instead of a taker when it comes to business relationships. There is a good amount of evidence that nice guys finish last. But, interestingly, they also finish first. It’s all in the approach.
  2. Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty, a really wonderful book that outlines the author’s thoughts and teachings gleaned from spending three years studying in a Buddhist monastery. Service is at the center of everything Shetty does.

I’ve written about creative philosophies in the past. In fact, this post has been my most-viewed essay ever. Consider this an addendum. We all need to think more clearly about the people we are serving.

The author. Not actual size.

Grant Sanders is a father, husband, dog trainer, short-order cook, cold-weather swimmer, electric piano and tenor guitar restorer, jump rope enthusiast, podcaster, ad industry veteran, and the founder/lead of SAND. Which, it so happens, operates under a creative and strategic agency model that expands and contracts to meet the needs of the clients it serves. It’s built to work speedily and is tailor-made for a global viral apocalypse. Hand sanitizer optional.

Essays on the creative process from Grant Sanders. Creative astronaut. Art and copy switch-hitter. Brand strategist. Client confidant. Founder, SAND.

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