Creative urges

The arts and media are notoriously difficult to break into – no wonder as they offer some of the most glamorous and exciting jobs around. To get ahead you’ll need talent, contacts, determination and the ability to work for nothing

Could you cut it as a creative? Find out with our quiz

It is said that everyone has a novel inside them but is yours itching to get out or is it destined to be submerged by middle-aged spread? Or do you fancy yourself as a bit of an artist? Be honest: have your skills developed since your mother proudly stuck your early daubings onto the fridge door?

Creativity, along with charm, wit and intelligence, is a trait most of us like to think we possess. It is a magical, childlike quality and creative people are generally viewed as youthful, dynamic and exciting.

That is why a greater number of people aspire to careers in film, design, advertising, TV and the press than to careers in banking and accountancy.

While the stereotypical bank manager wears a grey suit and sits at a desk all day, “meejah” types swan around in trendy clothes, quaff champagne and fly to exotic locations (supposedly).

Unfortunately, while many of us think we have a bit of creative spark, not all of us have what it takes – the talent or the temperament – for a creative career. And the reality of such jobs rarely lives up to the fantasy image.

What makes a creative person? “There is no universally agreed definition of creativity,” says Gary Fitzgibbon, a chartered work psychologist at Fitzgibbon Associates.

“But most people agree that being creative means producing something new, something that’s not just a product of applying a pre-existing set of rules.”

Few people would disagree that Mozart was born a creative genius. But Fitzgibbon believes creativity is not always acquired through your genes.

“Although it’s true that certain personality types are more creative than others, and some people are innately talented, being creative is a way of thinking that most people can acquire,” he says.

“Creative people are self-aware, open-minded and receptive to new ideas. They challenge rules and assumptions, even those they hold unconsciously.

“They have a curiosity about how other people get things done and they like sharing information. They enjoy variety, feel comfortable with change and can cope if something they have produced is modified.

“Creative people don’t need to know exactly where they’ll end up. They follow their intuition, tend to be spontaneous and like taking risks.

“They are able to combat negative thinking and change their outlook and practices. Tenacity and a thick skin are also important – a novelist can’t give up the first time his or her book is rejected. Successful creative people have sensitivity but are not oversensitive.

“The irony is that the people who are most aware of whether they have these qualities are the people who don’t have them – analytical types who base judgments on facts, not intuition. Truly creative people are often not able to set down exactly what their behaviours are.”

We all know amazingly talented artists and musicians who have never fulfilled their potential and end up drifting through life. Creativity needs to be channelled.

Fitzgibbon says using creativity successfully at work involves a combination of left-brain and right-brain thinking.

“While right-brain thinking is usually associated with creative people, in order to be creative in your career you need whole-brain activity,” he says.

“Having talent or great ideas is useless if you can’t see them through to an end. You need self-motivation, confidence and the ability to sell your ideas and cope with setbacks.”

Jon Dobinson, the executive creative director of advertising agency TMP Worldwide, is responsible for recruiting creatives – copywriters, art directors and designers – for his firm.

He agrees that simply being creative is not enough. “When I recruit I’m looking for someone with the ability to take a brief, analyse what’s important and come up with a fresh, original way of interpreting that brief – one that will strike a chord and communicate a message to people,” he says.

“Of course, it goes without saying that you must have the core skills to back up the idea. It’s all about being able to apply creativity.”

Employers in certain creative industries (always check first – it varies) expect applicants to demonstrate their creativity from the outset.

It’s no good applying to be an advertising copywriter and submitting a standard letter and CV. You need to show you have something new to bring to the company and, most important, that you can sell yourself.

“A few years back, when I was working at another agency, we advertised for a writer,” recalls Dobinson.

“One applicant sent in his application on a space hopper. It got him an interview, although he didn’t ultimately get the job.”

If you’d like to work in a creative field, there are several practical matters to consider. The creative job market differs from its more conventional, corporate cousins in many ways.

There is often no structured career path or salary scale so, if you care about moving up the ladder or earning x amount within 10 years, think carefully before sending off your CV.

Many creative job are not advertised – it is such a competitive market, employers do not need to – so breaking in requires the initiative to discover opportunities and the confidence to make speculative applications.

Indeed, many creative jobs are not “jobs” at all. In many fields, particularly journalism, a large percentage of workers earn their living as freelances, either based at home or working from the offices of a variety of employers.

Most people in broadcasting are hired on short-term (three or six-month) contracts. But even those creatives on long-term contracts face redundancy if clients are lost or advertising revenues fall. Believe it or not, it is as important for artists and writers to keep their eye on the state of the economy as it is for bankers.

Training opportunities are few and far between; it’s often up to the employee to make sure he or she is au fait with, for example, the latest page layout software. The hours are long – you’ll be expected to stay until the magazine goes to press, or filming wraps for the day, irrespective of family commitments. What’s more, the pay is poor (think teacher, not banker) and overtime is virtually unheard of.

In fact, when you’re starting out in some creative industries, notably TV, you might even be expected to work for free – regardless of your qualifications and previous work experience. Could you afford to do this?

Networking is of paramount importance across all creative industries. Careers can be made or broken by the number and quality of your contacts and also your reputation on the professional grapevine.

“Creative industries place more influence on networking than others,” says Tim Bradshaw, the director of careers and student development at Canterbury Christ Church University College.

“That’s partly because of the preponderance of freelance work. There’s not much demand for people without experience – it’s a buyer’s market.”

Being able to network is an essential skill when trying to break in. Bradshaw recommends you prepare a “spider diagram” listing everyone you know and everyone they know, and so on: “Most people know far more people than they realise – your parents’ friends, neighbours, old school mates etc,” he explains.

“One of these people is bound to work in your chosen field or have links to it. Pick their brains and don’t be afraid to use them for work experience or a reference. A personal recommendation can make all the difference.”

Even the most creative of jobs has its mundane elements such as filing, bookkeeping, administration and meetings. If, for example, you choose to be a freelance writer or designer, you’ll have to develop business skills and learn to deal with the Inland Revenue. Work for an advertising agency and you’ll have to put up with office politics and big egos, not to mention long hours and networking events in the evenings.

When choosing a creative job you should look at the whole job spec, not just the job title. says Fitzgibbon. “Ask yourself if you’ll be comfortable doing it, if it matches your personality. It’s essential to do thorough research – talking to people who are already doing the job is a good start,” he says.

“Ask people you know and trust whether they can honestly see you doing the job you’re interested in, and whether they think you’d be good at it and happy. If in doubt, seek professional help from a careers counsellor.

“Don’t make a mistake. The biggest cause of stress in the workplace is a poor match between what people need and what they actually get from their job.”

For those who do find the right match, working in a creative field is far more rewarding than just doing a job.

“Most creative workers think they’re extremely lucky,” says Bradshaw. “They get to do professionally what other people do for a hobby. They’re being paid to do the thing they love. What could be better?”

Want to know more?


· Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity by Edward de Bono (Penguin Books)

· The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People by Carol Eikleberry (Ten Speed Press)

· The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Edited by Eoin Colfer (A&C Black)

· The Guardian Media Guide. Edited by Emily Bell (Atlantic Books)

Trade magazines

· Campaign (Haymarket Publishing)
· PR Week (Haymarket Publishing)
· Creative Review (Centaur Communications)
· Media Week, (Quantum Publishing)
· Screen International (Emap Media)
· Broadcast (Emap Media)
· Press Gazette (Quantum Publishing)

Success stories

Tanya Axford, 31, is a self-employed visual artist. She lives and works in Berwick upon Tweed.

“I make installations using vast amounts of everyday objects and materials, which I build into three-dimensional environments. When people come to see my work I want them to be totally absorbed and surrounded by it, to feel like they’re actually walking into a painting.

“I did a degree in fine art at Newcastle University but, when I graduated in 1997, I wasn’t certain I’d become an artist. I sort of fell into it, after getting to know people involved in Visual Arts North East, an artist-led initiative that takes over empty venues and allows unknown artists to exhibit their work.

“Meanwhile, I was developing my installations, which grew out of my interest in collages and different materials. With no pressure or expectations, I had the time to explore, experiment and find my own style.

“In 2000, I exhibited the piece that really got me noticed – Sod’s Lawn. Using 20,000 paint-colour sample cards in different shades of green, which I folded and chopped up, I created a massive grassy landscape.

“A Sunderland gallery saw it and asked if they could show it. It really was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

“These days I work to deadlines, which can be quite stressful, although I enjoy the buzz. And working to order can be difficult – you don’t always feel at your most creative.

“Working as an artist isn’t the most lucrative of careers, particularly when you start out. When I first graduated I worked all the hours God sent and made about £3,000.

“I supported myself with odd jobs and by doing workshops in schools. People don’t want to pay for your work unless you have a reputation. The better known you are, the more you can earn. But I didn’t go into this career for the money.

“I’ve built up a good network of artists in the area. Networking is a very important part of the job – it’s the way you find out about opportunities and get your face known.

“Organisations like the Artists Information Company advertise in magazines and on websites. I also get to hear about future shows through Northern Arts and by keeping in touch with local galleries. To succeed as an artist you’ve got to be self-motivated and determined.

“I am currently working as one of the Berwick Gymnasium Gallery Fellowship Artists, a programme that gives artists four months to create a new body of work for a solo show. When I’ve finished that I’ll be doing a residency in Margate for the new Turner Contemporary Art Gallery.

“No day is the same, my job is so varied and I learn so much. The only downside is there’s nobody to take the pressure off you if you’re ill. When it’s your creativity and ideas that the client is paying for, nobody else can replace you. But I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Dan Glass, 32, is a visual effects supervisor, currently working for Warner Brothers on The Intimidation Game, a film scheduled for release next summer. He lives in San Francisco and London.

“Visual effects involves the parts of film-making that require some form of computer trickery. That’s anything from a wire-removal shot or green screen to exploding miniatures or a fully computer-generated scene – anything that is impossible, unsafe or too expensive to shoot normally.

“My role as supervisor is to help the director realise his or her vision by liaising between the director and the technicians, planning and monitoring the shooting and then guiding the digital work to completion in a close relationship with the editing process.

“Visual effects is a young industry and it’s constantly evolving. Audiences are getting smarter to the tricks so you have to think of new approaches or refine existing ones.

“It makes for an exciting lifestyle, often across several locations. I’ve worked in London, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sydney in the past four years.

“Although I always wanted to work in the film business, I studied architecture at the Bartlett, University College London. I figured that if things didn’t work out, I’d have something to fall back on.

“After graduating, I lived in Brazil for a year teaching English while I considered taking the plunge into movies. When I returned to London, I took my CV around every film company in Soho.

“The one that caught my eye was the Computer Film Company. It had offices in London and Los Angeles, which sounded cool. After some hesitation, they offered me the job of a runner – answering phones, washing dishes and running errands.

“It was the right place to be at the right time. As the company grew it trained and encouraged its employees from within. I was there for six years, honing my technical skills while working on projects like Mission Impossible, The Saint and Notting Hill.

“I was then offered a job at Manex in San Francisco to work on Mission Impossible II. Following that, I supervised a movie called 13 Ghosts for Warner Brothers and subsequently was offered one of the production supervisor jobs on the Matrix sequels. There hasn’t been much opportunity for a breath.

“The most enjoyable project I’ve worked on was the Guinness ‘Surfer’ commercial – the one with the horses running through the waves – on which I was co-supervisor.

“It was a knife edge project but it worked out and won awards, which was very satisfying. The Matrix sequels were insane in scale and ambition – I needed about a year to recover.

“Patience and stamina are essential. The movie business is full of characters and a surprisingly large part of the job is pure diplomacy.

“You can also plan and prepare endlessly only to find the equipment breaks down on the day or the director wants a different shot from the one you’d discussed.

“You have to be able to think calmly and quickly under pressure – a few seconds’ delay can cost thousands of dollars, make a shot unusable or endanger someone’s life. You need to have a good technical grounding in the procedures but also think around problems creatively.

“If you want to get into the film business, be prepared to work for very little and prove yourself first. And be respectful of everyone – the guy making you tea may be a big producer in five years’ time.”

Emma Gold, 37, has had two novels, Easy and Hard, published by Hodder & Staughton and is writing her third. She lives in north London. Before she became a novelist she worked as a commercial property lawyer.

“Being a lawyer didn’t suit me. The money was good but I hated sitting in an office for 10 hours a day, looking over contracts, and I couldn’t bear the office politics.

“I got through the days by clock watching and making personal calls. One day, I realised I was the only person in the whole firm not dressed in an identikit navy or black suit. I had to get out.

“The writing didn’t happen immediately. I drifted for a while, working in various jobs, including publishing. Unusually, I didn’t start writing until I was 30. But I’ve always read a lot – the best training, I think – and people always used to comment on how funny and well written my letters were.

“Writing wasn’t something I actively decided to do. It began as a way of getting everything off my chest, of dealing with anger and bitterness about relationships.

“The catalyst was when a guy I’d been after for two years finally agreed to go out with me. A week later, he announced he didn’t want to be with me any more and gave me several reasons why not.

“I went round to a friend for comfort and we realised he’d given me a total of 15 reasons. Out of that experience came my first short story: 15 Reasons. It’s also the title of a chapter in my first novel, Easy.

“My books are contemporary romances, with lots of explicit sex – a bit like London’s answer to Sex and the City. I was so fed up with chick lit novels that I wanted to write something real. But I’ve made my parents promise never to read them.

“I’ve always believed in my writing and had absolutely no doubt my first book would be published. Finding an agent was easy – I already knew of someone and she agreed to take me on.

“Like every author, I had several rejections but the fifth publisher offered me a two-book contract for around £50,000.

“I spend about five hours a day writing and each book takes about nine months to complete. Sometimes, I work evenings and weekends. It’s not a case of being disciplined or driven – I have to write.

“If you want to write novels you need to enjoy your own company, be self-disciplined and have self-belief. You can’t give up at the first hurdle.

“You also need to believe you have something to say that will interest other people. It’s a good idea to write about what you know – most writers’ first novels are about themselves.

“To earn a living you need to write a book a year – around 70 per cent of novelists only earn 10,000 a year – and most writers have to subsidise their writing with other work.

“I work part time as a psychotherapist and do a bit of freelance journalism too. But the poor pay is more than made up for by the freedom and creative control.

“Being a writer is not actually all that different from being a lawyer – apart from the pay, of course. Both jobs are about conveying information and expressing yourself clearly. Then again, writing is far more enjoyable – and I can be me.”


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