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Interview Adrian Hilton, VP Creative at BET
Todd Torabi

written by Todd Torabi

Interview Adrian Hilton, VP Creative at BET

Wolf&Whale is doing a series of interviews with creative New Yorkers, to talk about what’s inspiring them, how they work and what they love about the City. This is the first in the series, where we speak with VP of Brand Creative at BET Network, Adrian Hilton.

Adrian is an award-winning creative professional with multiple decades of combined Advertising, Art Direction, and Creative Direction experience. He’s a truth seeker — looking for truth in his work, in society and in himself. You can learn more about him on his website and linkedin.

The interview has been edited and annotated for readability.

Where did your creative spirit come from?

I’m not trying to be cliché, but looking at my life path, I’ve lived a blessed life, a charmed life. Growing up in Virginia with rural roots, I had parents who allowed me to be me — be interested in creative things, be into art, into science, into astronomy and other things. 

Because I always had a curious eye, as an only child, my imagination was my best friend. So from day one, from the time I picked up my first crayon, I was allowed to be creative and I’ve just lived it from day one. I’ve had a creative sense as long as I can remember. 

What motivates you to create?

I’m all about making communications in a commercial sense that make people stop. It needs to have an insight that is based on truth to have any chance of making something good.

Great work takes a lot of team work and a lot of things coming together to make it happen. I’m very passionate day in an out about the creative I touch, the people I try to influence and the ideas I try to make better. I have a point-of-view and I’m a very passionate person and that can be a positive or a negative. But I’m always me. If my mom and my boss described me, the descriptions would be nearly the same.

What do you think makes the work 'great'?

In order to be a great creative you have to do a few things:

You have to be curious, to try to find out as much as you can about a subject and also explore subjects new to you.

As a creative you have to be open. Open to share and open to hearing what others have to say about what you put in front of them, so you have to be vulnerable.

And then you have to be resilient and strong enough to bounce back when you’re not hearing everything you want to hear. You need to be able to stop and say,  “okay well maybe this is wrong,” and start over.

So curiosity, resilience, openness and looking for the truth help me be creative and get to where I want to go.

Interview Adrian Hilton, VP Creative at BET

How do you balance creativity in your personal and professional life?

There are two different types of creativity in my life and they feed each other. 

There’s the creativity I bring to my job. Here I need to be passionate and find the truth in what I’m creating. 

Then there’s the personal creativity that keeps me curious, and fuels my passion overall.  Without the passions outside the workplace, it’s hard to get motivated to be creative at all.

My job is to grow a billion-dollar company with my creative work, but I can’t do that without the creative fire from my personal work — so creative mission is to keep one person happy and motivated, and that’s myself. It gives me the energy and focus to get back into work and solve business problems.

You only have so much energy to balance. That’s the compromise and trade off. So creativity needs energy, but it also needs truth.

How do you handle analytics within your creative process?

There has to be truth in creativity, from art to commerce.

Insights are now based on and calculated by numbers, numbers, numbers. Where as when I first started, insights came from talking to people, from focus groups, from being out in the world. It was like a fun game. You were figuring out the truth.

With insights and analytics, you get driven down a road much more quickly. And that’s been an adjustment — working with this type of insight but also trusting my gut. 

I think today, people rely on technology to provide all the answers. 

But people are people. Just because one group does one thing all the time on a platform doesn’t mean you can’t come in with something new. It doesn’t mean they won’t change what they do.

Analytics may say, “do it this way,” but as a creative you have to be able to throw some spice into that and achieve the unexpected. Because if everyone is doing it the same way, what’s creative about it?

Truth in numbers and truth in people are two different things.

How do you find inspiration in our new normal?

Some things from my creative process that gets me going is talking to people and finding out what they are doing and how they live their lives.

As I understand it, one of the most intimidating questions I ask at work is, “what are you doing this weekend?” And “what’s the cool stuff that’s going on?” And they get locked up because they feel they need to give the right answer or they aren’t cool enough.

It’s really interesting because you learn how to communicate with people in your work by talking to them in real life. Going out and observing people is great. I love to people watch. 

Going to a museum or going out can fuel you. I love it, and this has been a tough year with the pandemic. We’ve been a lot more reflective and introverted.

For me, it’s been one of the most challenging creative years of my life. To stay inspired, trying to inspire others — it’s been harder than any other time in my life. In my normal day-to-day, I love music. It’s my driver and sets my mood. But there wasn’t a lot of music, or joyful music. No one was putting anything out because they weren’t inspired. We all were in a creative hole, and it’s good to see us finally climbing out of it.

My hole wasn’t as deep. Even though I wasn’t doing things I liked, like DJing or photography. I went nine months without shooting anything — that was numbing to me. But I found other ways to get out of my hole.

What got me through was my culture and my commitment to it. And to some degree, the tragic events of George Floyd, it sparked me. I was being creative for a bigger purpose than myself. I felt bad that I wasn’t out on the street marching. 

But going to work at Black Entertainment Television, we are always about Black Culture and in that moment, needed to inspire Black Culture. I wouldn’t have wanted to work anywhere else in the last year, it saved me. 

It inspired me, it was for a bigger purpose. My team inspired me.

We came to work as our true self and didn’t have to hide anything. It allowed us to be free and open, and exchange ideas and that’s when you have the best creative coming out.

So, believe it or not, black people in America and what we have gone through has inspired me.

Did you feel any added pressure working at BET?

My team at BET Brand Creative have a daily mission — to celebrate black culture and move it forward in a positive way. But, I don’t look at it as added pressure to say the right thing, or do the right thing.

The audience we serve is primarily African American, but it ripples out to other regions of the world. They look to us for how we show up from a musical and visual place. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just black people who work at BET. There are a lot of people of other races and nationalities and I commend all of them who come to work and move Black culture forward.

So it wasn’t added pressure. You can ask my team, or anyone I work with. I walk into the room with truth, whether you want to hear it or not.

We were all feeling the same way. We were angry, we were sad, we were disappointed, we were scared. And our audience looked at us to understand how they felt. So it was just stepping up to the plate to tell the truth, represent the culture in a positive way and to inspire people not to give up and keep going.

We’re all in this together. Things aren’t going to change unless we make them change.

I remember the first day, talking about what was going on about the George Floyd thing in our team meeting. We opened the floor up to all 43 people and it was one of the most powerful creative experiences of my personal and professional life. We had people just speaking their truth. Some mad, some in tears, but it was their truth and we all understood. And for those who didn’t understand, who weren’t black, they saw and felt it first hand— the truth, and were inspired by that.

Because it’s not just about black people, but all people. It was a beautiful thing. 

I don’t want to say I was especially inspired by unrest in the last year. But it made me realize that I get to go to work everyday and talk about black people — the culture, the music, everything. And when you see how black culture drives culture everywhere, I feel like I live a charmed life.