Producing creative that doesn’t meet expectation is a common cry from not only the marketing team, but even the ad agency’s own people, and the production suppliers hired to execute. So, how do you make sure that ads stay on track?
The marketing industry landscape is clearly driven heavily by research, with creatives passionately fighting against this and at the same time reliant on useful insights to develop their work. The strategic and creative process is highly siloed with segregated specialists creating missing gaps between the strategy and the final execution. The industry is often considered filled with over-cautious marketers, creatives flippantly relying on ‘gut feel’ and (at times) focused on completing their own folio. On top of that – inconsistent creative process throughout the industry cause these gaps.1 There are a number of actions we can take as an industry to close these gaps.
Imperative #1: More Flexible And Responsive Research Practices
Research can be used more for job protection and validation of pre-conceived ideas, rather than to drive insights and to guide the creative for effective results. Many consider the research process too slow, non- responsive, dry and systematic, with limited responses that can influence the outcomes or simply prove an established opinion rather than learn a fresh insight2.
The new age of researchers that customise to the brief, are highly collaborative, flexible, with modernised (perhaps even ‘game-ified’) interfaces or experiences, and at the very least remain open-minded and neutral about the outcomes may be just what is needed.
Better research practices don’t just stop at the choice of researcher and how they work, but what we all then do with the information. Much important research information stays within the marketing department, sometimes ventures into the account service or strategy departments, and dwindles less and less into the agency creative leadership team, actual writers and art directors, designers, producers or suppliers who do the actual day to day executional work.
- More flexible and customised research practices
- Use research to discover insights rather than test executions
- Share the research, brand guidelines, strategic blue prints with creative and production teams widely
- Use research as a sense check to see that it delivers the strategy, rather than be about what creative execution feels the most comfortable or liked
Imperative 2: Direct Access To Creatives & Suppliers
Giving creatives, and even their suppliers, better access to the clients directly will assist in bridging these gaps.
Don’t just pass on the research document to read, but let the clients talk about the insights that really meant something, and to explain why. Clients know their business better than anyone. Get the people that execute in front of the people with the most strategic understanding of the business, and you will also reduce the double handling and miscommunication through the process.
Research often works without the creative team involved. That’s likely a symptom for brands that use project based suppliers, losing the continuity, and potentially why a number of brands prefer to manage their projects in house. It is also seen to be an independent activity for many brands, however.
- Involve creatives early. Ask ‘What do you want to know?’
- Consider hiring a creative strategist to work with you through the development of the brand to put you in good stead for future project based work, even if you don’t want a long term agency roster
- Do more face to face meetings rather than email through pre-production details and work in progress
Imperative 3: More Strategic Approval Processes
Subjectivity and chaotic approval processes are the industry’s evil arch nemesis, and the outcome is an execution that is missing the mark with the audience.
Marketers, creatives and suppliers that are not well informed on the strategy and research findings tend to execute work that suits what they want, not what the customer needs. The current customer base may also be misunderstood to be the limited market, but you may be missing out on the real market potential with a wider, untapped audience. The result being that the work gets stuck in the same old rut or simply off track.
Every step of the process where subjectivity is the main influencer, bounces the final execution around like a child’s super ball let go – difficult to catch once on the loose. Subjectivity then becomes the challenge of a tug of war to see who has the loudest (or most senior) voice to reach decisions.
Approval chains with flat structure can be a bed of subjectivity and decision-making by committee. Everyone’s input should be welcomed, however there also needs to be a core and small team that have ultimate decision making who understand the strategic needs, have been involved from start to finish, as well as have a good understanding of marketing.
Many of us are familiar with the job that has been going along smoothly and right at the last minute the CEO sees it for the first time and has major concerns (often valid). Changes at this point are expensive and difficult to achieve well, and often with no time left in the project. Particularly for expensive projects such as TV production and website builds the impact can be substantial, not just for the budget but also for the quality of the final result. Many marketers and agencies fear that if the CEO is involved early it will slow the process down or they will make unwanted changes, but frankly the changes during a production are far less impactful than at the last minute.
Look deeply into whether there is a vested interest in the outcome of certain decisions – financial gain, award viability, producing work that fits with the supplier’s own brand of work rather than the brand’s; even whether there is a limitation in experience or a history of a certain speciality.
In ad agencies the creative directors and strategy planners could well be the most thinly stretched for their time to be fully immersed in the individual needs of a project. The team below them often are not fully informed of the strategic direction and their day to day decisions impact the project the most.
The job of marketing activity is strategically determined and not everyone understands the difference between goals for brand awareness, web user traffic, an online action, an enquiry, a referral, internal and sales communications, or to get more immediate transactions. Often the goals are not clear and not communicated through the approval process – sliding the work further away from where it should be.
Often lawyers are not briefed until the work is complete – that sounds like an obvious pitfall but is incredibly commonplace. Additionally, there is a lack of understanding by lawyers when producing TV commercials as to how to write a safe and protective disclaimer at the same time as ensure it is communicated effectively for the medium. Long and lengthy disclaimers that are essential for print work can be condensed for simpler communication for the TV medium, despite what some lawyers tell you. Long and lengthy disclaimers can in fact be more misleading than the more succinct versions or even a reference to the website for full details which may be allowable by the commercial approval bodies (eg. Free TV Commercials Acceptance Division in Australia). Lawyers have a strong voice in business, but they too don’t always approve work with a full understanding.
It is common for a project manager or producer, who has as much influence over the final execution as anyone in the team, to have no clarity on the target market, research findings, or the strategic goals. Many follow industry creative trends, or aspire to use the latest production techniques for the ‘cool’ factor, rather than align with the strategic needs of the brief.
- Clear approval process to be defined and communicated – even visualise it
- Don’t mistake collaboration and open feedback for approval processes – key parties with the appropriate skillset to make the final decisions
- Ensure the people that are given the authority are involved from the beginning
- Ensure the key decision makers are involved at the most costly milestones – such as creative development, casting, rough cuts, proofs etc.
- Consider weighting ‘opinions’ to skill-set, so the people with the most relevant experience are more recognised
- Use the strategic blue print as well as the specific communication goals as the benchmark at all approval points
- Qualify the opinion of those involved – is there a vested interest (well meaning or otherwise)
- Involve lawyers early in the creative and production process
- Ensure lawyers are in communication with approval bodies including reviewing the codes to keep up to date on the latest requirements
- Involve lawyers at Pre-Check stage to simplify long and wordy disclaimers in TV production for more effective communication, rather than recycling print wording
Imperative 4: Think Like Your Customer
Ask any marketer what ad they love the most and, sure-fire, they will nominate something charming, emotive, entertaining or funny. It will be memorable to them, and they will happily share what they thought of it. Ask the same marketer if they would approve that same piece of work, it is very likely they would answer ‘no’ (and always back it up with some long list of reasons why their business is different). So, are you producing work to tick boxes for the business but overshadowing what the customer really wants and needs?
Many marketers claim that their approval process, the international guidelines, and the way they are instructed to assess creative work would not allow work they deem as ‘the best’ to be approved. This is where we forget about our customers and get overly focused on ourselves as an industry. Never should entertainment be at the cost of communicating effectively, that’s a given, but if the audience is not engaged we don’t cut through to the right audience.
Creative strategy often lives in the strategy department and with the creative director, but often doesn’t reach the rest of the business. Alternatively, the creative strategy may have been developed in isolation from the smarter creative directors and therefore can go off track. Everyone on the team needs to start thinking about the customer and not just about doing their job, or doing what is asked of them without qualifying decisions.
Brand guidelines are readily shared, but they rarely communicate the values, personality profile of the brand, target audience profiles, strategic foundations and tonality of work. They rarely go beyond what typeface & colours to use.
- Let the audience insights lead every decision, not subjectivity
- Create work that makes a customer want to engage with the brand
- Use a target audience profile as a sense-check to ensure all decisions are sound
- Let the Creative Director see the raw material that the creative brief was founded on
- Share the creative brief beyond the creative team to all involved in the execution including external suppliers
- Share the research, strategy, customer profiles, brand personality, and brand current guidelines widely to all in the team including external suppliers who actually do the work
Imperative 5: Everyone To Take Responsibility For The Strategy
Not only is the strategy kept close to a few key players in the marketing department and the creative process, there are many involved in the process that see the strategic delivery as someone else’s job and don’t engage in it. It is common for a project manager or producer, who has as much influence over the final execution as anyone in the team, to have no clarity on the target market, research findings, or the strategic goals.
These people see themselves as project managers or purely task driven, under very specific direction from others. In many instances they are simply not allowed to engage in strategy – whether that is to be exposed to the strategy simply for understanding, nor to have a voice to guide execution.
Project managers in particular have a strong ability to pull together the right team, at the right time, and spend the budget in just the right way to impact the creative results. Without strategic understanding and perhaps even responsibility, this is one of the major areas that a project can go off track creatively, strategically, and also incurs additional cost to rectify.
- Share research, brand strategy and strategic findings with all team members in the process
- Consider new workflows that allow key team members to be involved earlier and with strategic briefing, particularly project managers and producers
- Get the whole team involved in the strategy and make them accountable for it, give them a voice and approval process to raise concerns or add value
- Make the target audience profile visible to all the team to benchmark all decisions
- Review your processes
- Consider multi-talented project managers who understand strategy and even multiple media types
- Sense check your own beliefs and subjective practices
The New Breed Leading The Way
From strategic foundations including research, deriving insights from the research and developing creative strategy through to the actual production and execution of the ads, there are multiple touch-points that all team members in the process can have a positive impact on keeping the work on strategy.
It is a new breed of project manager that may well have the greatest impact on the execution to keep it on strategy; but it will take a mindset change from the industry. To see project managers beyond budget and timeframe responsibilities; to broadening their role for more strategic responsibilities, will take some new thinking. This mindset shift may well be for both the industry and the project managers that often readily defer input because they don’t see it as their role. Larger agencies, in particular, where the department silos are the most defined may find this the hardest adjustment of all.
Project Managers are often the most accessible to the client, internal account managers, creatives (all levels), all production suppliers, and know when a crucial milestone or budget issue will be impacted.
Perhaps a new generation of multi-talented producer/account manager/strategist is a valuable role shift to enable more strategic accountability and shorter communication lines between the client and those that most impact the execution of the work? Having project managers more accountable for strategy, with closer communication with strategic planners may help solve the under-resourcing issues in that department.
Surely this multi-talented approach would achieve a more strategic outcome and with greater cost efficiency.
1 Based on the research project conducted by Think Global Research and International Creative Services published in White Paper ‘Strategic Production: 5 Imperatives to close the gap between strategy and execution’ January 2015
2 Industry research project conducted by Think Global Research and International Creative Services published in White Paper ‘Strategic Production: 5 Imperatives to close the gap between strategy and execution’ January 2015